I like to think of myself as open to any kind of music, ready at any time to take in something new and exciting. I take pride in my diverse vinyl and CD collection, taking pleasure in the wide array of genres and artists that can be found within. Beside my computer is a small but impressive stack of CDs to be reviewed. A little over a week ago, I pulled Settlefish’s sophomore disc The Plural of the Choir from the top of the file and after my very first listen, I had to admit to myself that I’d become stuck in a rut. For all the diversity among my shelving units, and housed among the iTunes playlists, what I actually listen to on a regular basis is easily a mere fraction of my entire collection, and probably much more narrow in scope that I care to admit. With the Deep Elm logo featured on the back of the disc, I probably secretly had Settlefish written off as yet another power-punk emo band in the back of my mind, but what I soon discovered was something else entirely. Rich and exciting, and bursting with the kind of energy that brought me back to my first days of dipping my toes into the indie rock pool, Settlefish are a pleasant surprise.
Though they hail from Bologna, Italy, Settlefish could just as easily be from Detroit, Seattle, Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles. Heavily influenced by American indie-rock of the early ‘90s, Settlefish’s record collections are on auditory display. Yet despite the obvious touchstones their music brings to mind (Pavement, Cursive) Settlefish still have fresh energy and innovation to infuse into the sound. For anyone who remembers Modest Mouse before they started listening to Radiohead and Tom Waits, Settlefish will bring back the pleasure of quirky guitar rock driven by honest emotion. The band rounds out their guitar driven sound with tasteful accompaniments including piano, farfisa and electronics. Producer Brian Deck collects the smattering of sounds into one unified whole, and the album never feels like it reaches for heights it can’t reach.
Spanning fifteen tracks, The Plural of the Choir is deceptive in its length. The album’s longest tracks, clocking in at over six minutes each, bookend the disc. Not coincidentally, they are also the disc’s weakest moments. Opener “Kissing Is Chaos” begins with two minutes of pointless noodling which eventually coalesce into an otherwise forgettable song. Closer “We Please the Night, Drama” is even more insubstantially airy, closing with three minutes of emotive, instrumental blather that never reaches a satisfying payoff. However, between these two white elephants are stunning packages of two-minute indie pop wonders that only once cross the three-minute mark and often barely make it to two.
The song that sold me on Settlefish, a good starting point for those new to the band, is the unbelievable “Ice in the Origin”. With a riff stolen right out of Isaac Brock’s hands, the tune is a wonderfully off-kilter minute-and-a-half number, that nicely alternates between speak-singing and outright yelling. Sealing the deal are lyrics that address the simple joy of playing in a band: “Or the warmth I get when I play when I play in this band / Cause we traded stories the other day (o-kay) / And then it seemed like we shouldn’t stay (oh no) / Cause we traded stories the other day (o-kay) / It was blisters but yeah they all seem to fade.” Also submitted for your consideration is the Braid-esque “It Was Bliss!”. Like the best b-side Bob Nanna never wrote, the song’s handclaps, thrift-store drums, and bursts of guitars will have you busting that cardigan out of your closet. “The Second Week Summer”, buoyed by faint hints of synth and organ, threaded with intricate guitar lines, and dabbed in subtle electronic beats, also shines brightly. And “Oh Well” inspires simply by its passionate performance. It’s little more than earnestly flailed guitar and from-the-gut singing, but its sincerity is powerfully palpable.
While The Plural of the Choir is enjoyable, it is also hampered in its ambition. Instrumental, minute-long pieces like “Getting the Clicks Out of Our Hearts” and “Rooms” are unnecessary filler. And while Settlefish do little to hide their influences, parts of the disc feel simply forced, trying too hard to emulate their heroes rather than create their own distinct imprint on the material. That said, younger audiences who don’t yet have Cap’n Jazz in their CD library will find much to love here, while older listeners may enjoy the trip back in time.