Cheyenne has, following the dreams of thousands of young musicians before them, relocated from small-town Oklahoma to big-city Brooklyn and written a sophomore record. This represents a small triumph on the part of the band, to continue existing in the wake of a troubled period of personnel changes and so on, but you’d never guess it from listening to The Whale. The record is confident and straightforward, never doubting for a second that its country-infused brand of indie rock is more or less familiar, but enjoyable nonetheless.
The best song on the album is the opening song and title track. “The Whale” opens with a kind of whale-like sound, I suppose, a bit of dissonance between cello and digging strings giving way to a Sufjan Stevens-esque piano ostinato and full orchestral folk backing. There’s a sense of urgency to the lyrics – “The stories are kinda dangerous / So burn the pages as you read” – which suits the song’s driving propulsion. “It’s really your guts that let you breathe”, vocalist Beau Jennings growls at the song’s climax. Well, not really: it’s your diaphragm that lets you breathe, and the gradient established with the depressed intrathoracic pressure caused by the expansion of the respiratory muscles. OK fine, his version’s more romantic. Whoever turned to music for a physiology lesson, anyway?
If the band can’t quite match the dark thrust of the opening through the rest of the album, it’s not a huge surprise – the bar was set rather high. What’s revealed over the course of The Whale, is that, though the band has a gift for attractive melody and is technically more than proficient, they’re still searching for their definitive sound. In order for the group to really break into the mainstream, it’s going to have to discover a stronger sonic footprint than the bit-from-here, bit-from-there feeling of The Whale. Collaboration’s all well and good (the record features a host of local and Oklahoman musicians in a heartening display of Midwest collegiality), but in order for it to be entirely successful there needs to be a strong, recognisable voice in charge. Cheyenne are still hovering on the edge of that voice.
Accordingly, the sound of the album swings from straightforward stadium rock to country twang, through Radiohead-influenced art rock and Nick Cave-style romanticism. None of this is a bad thing, necessarily, and with each new style the group brings a graceful interpretation. But I was left with the feeling that these mainstream song structures weren’t really capturing the band’s potential. The band’s at its best when it embraces menace and atmosphere. “Cimarron River”, faintly reminiscent of Ryan Adams, is a neat showcase of songwriting chops. Soaked in sorrow, the second verse explodes with a new drum beat, building atmosphere in an effective, if conventional, manner.
One thing that is clear is that Jennings has the particular way with phrases that is the mark of classic singer-songwriters. On “That Was the Ghost”, he paints a lasting image over a melancholy saxophone melody: “There’s a wooden porch, watch it rise and fall / As the ground below breathes in and out”. Throughout, his dour voice doesn’t have the emotional impact of the National’s Matt Berninger, but then again his imagery isn’t as opaque, so the intention’s obviously different.
Occasionally, when Cheyenne veer away from the rock end of things and into balladry, you get the sense of a deep longing to be in the middle of nowhere. This could be a powerful emotive force to tap, but the imitation of sheets of rain, e.g., in “This is the Fashion”, come off as a bit obvious. The band demonstrates it can get it right, though, on “The Curtain”, a weary picture of after-hours suburbia – complete emptiness.
The Whale is short and doesn’t overstay its welcome. Though this makes its impact somewhat transient, the album is nonetheless well executed and contains some noteworthy songs. If you’re still in doubt, the final, gorgeous ostinato of “Cotton Beach” – fragile arpeggios, sweet-squeezed harmonica – should be enough to convince you: Cheyenne’s made the big move, and will be around.
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