It’s been a long, patient ride to the middle for Victory at Sea. The band, led by singer/guitarist Mona Elliot, has been one of the most consistent and underappreciated acts from the post-rock boom of the mid-‘90s. Often lumped together with acts like June of ‘44, Rachel’s, and Rex, Victory at Sea was unfortunately lost in the critical shuffle. But as those bands have broken up and their members moved on to other projects, Elliot has plunged forward, surviving line-up and record label changes, continuing to release solid album after solid album. And with the release of their sixth album, All Your Things Are Gone, Victory at Sea have released their finest achievement to date, and one that deserves to land them the kind of praise that has unfairly eluded them all these years.
The first thing that sets apart All Your Things Are Gone from the band’s past output is the captivatingly raw and direct production by Andrew Schneider. Applying the kind of stripped-down approach that made Steve Albini famous, Schneider wisely allows the power of the band’s songs, and of Elliot’s vocals especially, to speak for themselves. The band has never sounded this potent, and this is made all the more impressive by the fact that they’ve been pared down to a three piece after the departure of violinist Taro Hatanaka. Armed with just guitar, piano, and drums, Victory at Sea’s attack is more primal than it’s been in the group’s history.
But the biggest surprise, and the most enjoyable, is Elliot’s growth as a lyricist. While the music is superb (and I’ll get to that in a minute), Elliot’s minutely detailed observations on love, loss, and desire are a revelation. Take “Bored Otherwise”, an ode to Elliot’s parents in which she takes a small detour to instruct them to “Get groceries put them on the window sill / It’s winter it’ll do”. Or take “Four Leaf Clover”, in which Elliot creatively informs the listener as to the age of the song’s subject: “Woke up in the morning / I drove from Lawrence to Omaha / Got there kinda early / And still I checked out the local bar/Cause beer to go is all new to me / I would have sent you but you’re only 19”. In “Cecille” it’s the fact that “She would move her legs under the table / I could see she knew the bass line” that captures Elliot’s eye. The album is filled with these kinds of moments frozen in time, lending such songs of grief and introspection a personality that is deeply felt.
But all of this would be nothing if the music wasn’t great, and All Your Things Are Gone finds Victory at Sea sounding more like a band than they ever have. While past albums were well played, Elliot’s guitar always stood at the front. The band’s newfound strength can be credited in part to drummer Dave Norton, the first member aside from Elliot to appear on two consecutive Victory at Sea releases. The presence of a regular rhythm section does wonders for the band, allowing for a tighter rein on the song’s structures anddoing away with the lead-footed quiet/loud motif for something far more organic and propulsive. It’s Norton who draws the listener’s attention first with his rat-a-tat toms early on in the fiery “Cecille”. But something like “Turn It Around” couldn’t have happened in previous incarnations of the band. At its core, the song is the trademark Victory at Sea sound, led by Elliot’s crisp guitar lines and full-throated vocals, along with Norton’s imaginative drumming. However, the song is built around, and bookended by, Mel Lederman’s cinematic and near classical piano theme. Indeed, Lederman’s piano allows for greater explorations in style as evidenced by the bar room stomp of the album opener “No Reason to Stay” and AM radio bliss of “Bored Otherwise”. Yet most of the tracks retain Victory at Sea’s usual gut-punching dynamics and visceral style. The difference here is a united front, and an interplay between each of the instruments that have built better, sturdier, and more memorable songs than the group has ever done.
All Your Things Are Gone finds Victory at Sea in the best shape of their long career. Elliot and her bandmates have remarkably overcome the largest stumbling block—that of sounding dated—delivering an album that builds on a style they have honed to near perfection. The band has never sound more alive. While a decade ago, the group was lost in the cerebral math-rock contests of their contemporaries, Victory at Sea is proof that emotion runs deep and will always trump technique. This is an album written from the heart and delivered from the brain, never sacrificing one for the other.
// Notes from the Road
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