Would anyone in the rock biz for self expression intentionally make background music? Atlanta band Seely are clearly serious about what they do. But still, their latest release, Winter Birds, seems designed to be sonic wallpaper. It isn’t necessarily a criticism, but it is off-putting at first. Even a song as banal as last year’s Cher hit, “Believe,” had that weird pitch shifting effect—that was a tiny bit jarring. Winter Birds, on the other hand, is start to finish, clean, modern, slightly electronic pop music. It’s Stereolab without the retro quirks.
But within the smoothness there is a lot of variety. And most of the songs are successful even if they aren’t necessarily memorable. A notable exception is the opening track, “El Cajon,” a spaced out song with ambitions to be trippy, that is instead cruelly sabotaged by a forced vocal delivery and cliched keyboard sounds which turn it into conventional acid jazz—a style which sounded fresh in 1995 but now sounds like a car commercial.
Luckily, after the weak start, things improve quickly. The second song on the album, “Alias Grace,” is similar to “El Cajon” stylistically but with a sparer approach and genuinely sultry vocals that make all the difference in the world. And the third track, “Sapelo Sound,” is a complete, and completely catchy, pop song, without any vocals at all. The vocals aren’t missed because, even at their most lyrically intense, Seely tends to use singing as more of an accent than a centerpiece—though not always; they aren’t afraid to try more ambitious approaches at times, like the harmonies on “Altamaha,” or the sultry lounge performance on “Sandy.” Overall singing is not the band’s strong point; the female vocals usually outshine the male but there are times when singers of both sexes detract from the mood of a song with forced phrasing or dull melodies.
The bulk of Winter Birds is of a piece with the first three tracks. If it’s still possible to classify music that is even the slightest bit electronic, then the majority of the record could be called trip-hop, extra dour. But when Seely veers away from their bed-ridden dance songs they surprisingly sound a great deal like the New York pop band Ivy. The most successful example of this is the aforementioned “Sapelo Sound” which effectively grafts hooks onto the Seely’s usual beds of sound and rhythm. It’s a nice change of pace. And though Seely lacks Ivy’s professional song-writing chops, the two bands share a refreshingly shiny aesthetic that is rare in alternative rock, but which those allergic to slickness—namely indie fetishists, may find off-putting.
Mostly Winter Birds just suffers from a lack of freshness. Everything is well put together but as a whole fails to sound novel. That makes it hard to get involved in the record which is a shame because Winter Birds does stand up to repeated listening. Credit is due to Seely for making such fine background music, but with a few adjustments to their approach Winter Birds could be in the spotlight where it belongs.