[5 October 2009]
The banjo has a very distinct sound. Much like the sitar or the bagpipes, it instantly conjures up images of a particular place: sitar = India, bagpipes = Scotland, and banjo = rural South. I mean, who hasn’t made a “dueling banjos” joke/reference before? However, over the last decade or so, the banjo has been getting a bit of a facelift via indie rock. Through artists like Sufjan Stevens, the Books, Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock, and Le Loup’s Sam Simkoff, the banjo has become progressively more integrated into other genres of music beyond country and bluegrass. As the banjo becomes more integrated into other genres, its sound is triggering less mental associations with the South. If you ask me, this is a very good thing. I have always had a soft spot for the dulcet twang of the banjo and fully support its widespread use in all strands of music.
On their 2007 debut, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, Le Loup was basically bandleader Sam Simkoff’s home project and his tunes were heavy on banjo and electronics. On the band’s new album, Family, the banjo plays less of a lead role, as do the electronics. Family is a much more organic and band-centered effort—each of Le Loup’s five members sang and contributed to the songwriting. As you would expect with all those cooks in the kitchen, Family is a pretty eclectic affair, but it is also cohesive.
For most of Family, Le Loup draws from a rather narrow and fashionable set of influences: Animal Collective, Akron/Family, Yeasayer, Grizzly Bear, and, of course, Sufjan Stevens. These are all wonderful influences to have and they are all bands that I personally love, but there are many moments on Family that are shamelessly derivative of one or more of the above-listed bands. I mention this not as some sort of knee-jerk snobbery, but because when I hear a band sounding exactly like, say, Yeasayer, it only makes me want to switch records and listen to Yeasayer and, consequently, forget about the copy artists. What saves the album (and the band, for that matter) from turning into utter parody is Le Loup’s songwriting chops. They’ve written a solid batch of songs that help me ignore their lack of originality for the most part.
Le Loup was wise to release “Beach Town” and “Forgive Me” as the first singles—they are excellent showcases for the band’s new direction and wildly infectious at that. “Beach Town” is more-or-less what you’d expect from a song called “Beach Town”. After a brief intro of squawking seagulls, the song unfurls into a woozy, calypso jam with the requisite tribal percussion. “Forgive Me” is the most overtly Animal Collective-aping track on Family (think Feels), but it’s also my favorite song on the album. “Grow” actually sounds more like it was directly influenced by the Beach Boys as opposed to the Beach Boys-via-Animal Collective, and the always reliable “Be My Baby” drumbeat will also keep your ears planted firmly in the ‘60s.
After a very strong first half, Family starts to get a little shaky in the home stretch. Three of the last five songs go past the five-minute mark which isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but it is when the songs are bland and tedious. The other two, shorter songs do nothing for me either. “Sherpa” is such a bald imitation of Akron/Family that it makes me feel sort of embarrassed for Le Loup. After an unbearably long intro, “Celebration” continues to (d)evolve into an aimless jam and borderline parody.
As I stated earlier, I’m very keen on the assimilation of the banjo. In regards to Le Loup, I obviously wish the band would develop a more unique approach to its music, and one of the few unique elements it has going for it, as of now, is the banjo. If anything, the band felt more novel on their homespun debut. Perhaps, they should have kept more of that album’s banjo ‘n’ electronics in play? Regardless, the group interplay suits Le Loup well and they have plenty of time to grow.