In the mid-‘90s, a group of instrument wielding mathematicians devoted to the sea gathered together to form the influential rock collective June of 44. Like a boat being tossed about in a storm, June of 44 bruised and battered sonic compositions with a cold calculation. The results were chaotic, but, at the same time beautiful and calming. Towards the close of the millennium, two of said devotees split off to start Shipping News, who were just as nautically and musically inclined. In 1996 the Boston based band Victory at Sea joined that tiny demographic. Formed out of the ashes of the Swirlies and Spore, Victory at Sea stood out because they wielded a magnificent weapon in vocalist Mona Elliot. If June of 44 and Shipping News were trying to emulate the sound of the swirling seas and crashing breaks, Victory at Sea is the sound of a quiet port town, forever shrouded by fog and a damp sadness.
With their third release The Good Night, Victory at Sea once again lean on Elliot to carry the album. When Elliot sings, she sounds as if she is singing to herself and you are lucky to eavesdrop. She sounds stripped of self-consiousness and remarkably intimate. Her vocal range varies from bold to hushed to childish, often within the same song. While The Good Night is sliced into 10 tracks, it often sounds like one anthem for a very strong women. Displaying the good sense to play to their strengths, Elliot’s vocals are put to the forefront of the mix allowing the songs to be built around them. Bassist Mel Lederman and drummer Christina Files do an excellent job of surrounding Elliot with aural props that help support the song she is singing.
On “Old Harbor”, Elliot laments “yeah the halls might be a little dark and scary / Yeah the walls might tell a few horrible stories / But you can’t beat the rent and you save for a house in the good part of town / Too bad it never really goes away.” Those words encapsulate the mood set on The Good Night. However, through the gloom there is a muted sense of optimism. The strength of Elliot’s voice conveys an underlying determination not to be dragged under and a pride at not having given in. The opening tracks “Mary in June” and “Canyon” immediately plunge the listener into the darkness of Victory’s dense sound, setting up Elliots’ euphoric howl towards the end of the later track. Victory at Sea employs elements of Codeine’s famed snore-core, to set the listener up for their varied plunges into quirkier, more energetic passages. The formula works best on numbers like “Sunny Days”, and “The Bluebird of Happiness”, with the band breaking from their mold to shake the listener up. There’s also the wonderfully twee “Firefly” which closes the album on a Magnetic Fields like blast of demented folk. Unfortunately, Victory at Sea occasionally veers into Portishead territory where they tend to languish. They are too good to rely on someone else’s tried and true approach and this album suffers from it.
The Good Night is overall, a somber, spooky affair. Yet there sunlight at the end of every storm and Victory at Sea prove masterful at not wallowing in morose tones. The album is overflowing with twists and turns that dump the listener in a variety of moments. More focused than their bretheren in June of 44 and Shipping News, Victory at Sea may also be better.