Unlike the widescreen grandstanding of fellow Icelandic brethren Sigur Rós and Björk, Without Gravity exudes a humbler charm. It touts a similar melancholy and bittersweet inspiration, but does so in a contained space; its emotional meditation is tailored for the living room, not the stadium.
So when lead singer Karl Henry croons of “seeking shelter from this world”, his band follows, huddling up into the hushed retreat of Tenderfoot (which, incidentally, appears to have been the band’s original name). The Reykjavik foursome’s debut album is in league with pensive soft-folk contemporaries like Damien Rice and Ray LaMontagne, performing music that’s too socially noncommittal to be called folk and too freely atmospheric to be called country. It’s a breathy, androgynous sound, more an overwrought emotion or mood than musical form, like the Harvest paradigm that’s been diluted to sate mediocre sophistications.
Without Gravity isn’t to blame for the perpetuation of sentimental, Starbuckian acoustic music (for the record, the group is much more alive than Rice and less hammy than LaMontagne); although it can tread a little too closely to insubstantial background music, the band can execute its formula gracefully. Tenderfoot‘s sound is rich with warm acoustic instrumentation: the lulling double bass, soft slide guitars, pedal steel, and nimbly brushed drums help foster a reassuring ambiance. The songs’ melodies (which, thanks to Henry’s sleepy, sober voice, can insinuate the spirit of Thom Yorke and Jeff Buckley) are both uplifting and disillusioned: songs like “Beautiful Son”, “Waterfall”, and especially the moving “Without Gravity” (whose chorus sounds immediately familiar) operate in that malleable middle ground, arguing the pros and cons of sentimentality. The acoustic guitar-driven ballad “Without Gravity” is the record’s best example of this tactic, reinforcing its fragile refrain (“You know that I’m lost in a world without gravity”) with punctuated piano chords.
Tenderfoot succeeds in sustaining a mellow, unthreatening vibe over the course of its 10 songs. As a consequence, many songs shuffle by so unobtrusively that they barely leave a trace to prove they were there; each song follows its predecessor’s blueprint; and the proceedings are blanketed with unwavering uniformity. The protracted trance is broken twice (“Blue Bird”, in which the band gets its inner Van Morrison out, and “Teardrops”, a slightly more forceful groove than any other song on the record), but Tenderfoot is really about a band sticking with what works instead of plotting out complicated innovation. (A hidden track at the album’s end, sort of a Gomez-via-Dave-Brubeck concoction, suggests the possible futures that the band could dream up and all the adventuring such fantasy implies.) The record ultimately succumbs to a samey feel during its second half: songs like “Cloud in Your Sky” (a “tribute to Nick Drake”), “Wolf River”, and “Been Let Down” have no chance of yielding the same impact as some of their similar—and previous—counterparts.
Then again, all it takes is one song to make even the most ruthless cynic weak in the knees. Without Gravity’s subdued honesty (no matter how precious or run-of-the-mill), coupled with those descending, wilting chord structures, can evoke bittersweet sensations of a collective longing. You may feel like you’ve compromised a hardened integrity to fall for a song here or there; nonetheless, feel free to swoon at will.