It is important to note that Jeff Mueller and Jason Noble, the founding members of Shipping News, recorded their first musical collaborations for the popular NPR program “This American Life” in 1996—significant because the open-ended “structure” required to produce compelling soundtrack music still permeates their introspective songs five years later.
On their second full-length release, Very Soon, and in Pleasant Company, Noble and crew shun the traditional verse-chorus format prevalent in most radio-ready pop music, instead, fashioning their songs from a series of parts that travel effectively from one emotion to another, and rarely repeat themselves. Like the most memorable film or novel, music constructed in this manner “works” when enough space is permitted—intentionally or accidentally—between the vocals and instrumentation, to allow the mood generated by the music to function as a springboard for creative thought. And if you are appropriately attentive, the dense, nostalgic journey yields new perspectives with each listen.
Perhaps the most successful manifestation of this idea is found on “Quiet Victories”. The song consists of two essential parts, the opening half, features Mueller’s descending, delay-pedaled guitar that ebbs and flows like turbid ocean waves on a polluted beachfront, while percussionist Kyle Crabtree punctuates the proceedings with sparse, impressionistic slaps of the snare drum and cymbals, a Zen-like approach popularized by Dirty Three’s Jim White. On the second half of the song, the aural ingredients congeal into an ominous piano-driven groove that satisfyingly hints at the darker moods of Black Heart Procession, while Mueller conjures up the ghost of the Louisville band Slint with his grungy guitar epilogue.
If there is a weakness to Very Soon, and in Pleasant Company, it is found in the frail vocals supplied by Mueller, Noble and Crabtree (I can’t discern between them), which sound endearingly self-conscious but sincere on “Actual Blood”, and off-key afterthoughts on “A Simple Halo” and “Contents of a Landfill”. Nevertheless, “Contents of Landfill” shares a similarly expansive quality with “Quiet Victories”. With the assistance of Christian Frederickson on viola and Edward Grimes on vibes, this sprawling track recalls the gentle, introverted beauty of Noble’s other band, Rachel’s, who have mastered the classically tinged, mood-inducing soundscape that cannot be fully appreciated until you’ve boarded a train in Europe on an overcast day to some unknown destination.
And that is the lasting value of Shipping News: their music makes you feel as though you’ve traveled somewhere important—spiritually or geographically—even if you’ve haven’t left your house.