When Shipping News dropped their debut album Save Everything it was everything June Of ‘44’s swan song Anahata wasn’t. The latter found June Of ‘44 taking a decidedly more contemplative affair (relying more on atmosphere than the punchy post-punk of the band’s earlier efforts like Tropics and Meridians and Four Great Points) and consequently offering up a disappointment. Thus, when June Of ‘44 head honcho Jeff Mueller returned with a new band and a new album, fans were rightly excited. Save Everything was a triumph that blended angular guitar heroics with tense, moody instrumental passages into one explosive package.
Shipping News’s second disc, Very Soon, and in Pleasant Company, fell well short of the mark made by their debut. With less rock and more meandering compositions, the album wasn’t the stunner follow-up as expected. They followed their sophomore effort with a series of marginal, limited edition EPs each written by a different band member, that were later compiled into a single CD entitled Three-Four. Now two years later, the band returns with their latest group effort Flies the Fields, and anyone hoping for a return to the steam engine powered rock of Save Everything will feel sufficiently let down.
Flies the Fields starts off promisingly with “Axons and Dendrites”. Built on a repetitive and slowly shifting groove, the song is effectively moving, with chilling spoken-sung vocals, and a melody that for the most part remains elusive until the track’s final breathtaking moments. The rest of the album however, is astonishingly forgettable, and continues largely where Very Soon, and in Pleasant Company ended off. “(Morays Or) Demons” rocks an anti-war vibe that never quite coalesces into anything substantial. Even a visit by Pit Er Pat member Fay Davis Jeffers (who performs guest vocals on “Untitled w/ Drums”) fails to remain in the memory. The album falls remarkably short of any pay off, as the songs and compositions wander about without any sense of purpose or even finality.
Shipping News certainly isn’t lacking in chops. Mueller, Jason Noble and Kyle Crabtree are accomplished musicians, but for all the textured explorations the group seems to have forgotten how to engage their listeners. For better or worse, the shadow of their forbearers (which in addition to June Of ‘44 also include Rodan and Rachel’s) will forever loom large over Shipping News. Part of what made June Of ‘44 and Save Everything so intriguing was the strum und drang of group’s compositions coupled with Jeff Mueller’s emotive yelling. Unfortunately, since Save Everything Mueller has kept his vocal outburst to a disappointing minimum, diminishing the impact these songs have.
So where does this leave us? Listeners new to Shipping News may find much to relish here. The group can weave riffs like no other, and are adept at creating inviting soundscapes. However, fans familiar with the members’ past, will not come away satiated. Where are the power riffs? Where are Mueller’s yells? Where are the intricate math rock songs? It’s safe to say that Mueller is no longer interested in rocking out. Perhaps inspired by the chamber music of Noble’s Rachel’s, Mueller has traded in his visceral post-punk riffs for something more cerebral, and ultimately less satisfying.