[17 January 2011]
Shipping News, the primary torch-carriers for the Louisville, KY collective that started with Rodan in the ‘90s, also comprise some of the last men standing in the endangered Rodan-influenced strain of math rock. While not exactly prolific, the quartet of Jeff Mueller (ex-Rodan, June of 44), Jason Noble (Rachel’s, ex-Rodan), Kyle Crabtree, and Todd Cook (both of King’s Daughters & Sons) have been delivering cerebral post-rock free of computers and replete with odd angles and rhythmic upheavals since 1996. Perhaps because they were direct descendents of the scene that would define math rock to come, they had an intuitive feel for the kinds of things that make this music satisfying: seriousness, unpredictability, and a rock-solid group dynamic, to name but three. And while they could write songs just as epic and powerful as the best in the genre (their “True Lover’s Knot” is the mature, mid-era equivalent of Rodan’s early ‘90s killer “The Everyday World of Bodies”), their track record of actually doing it has been frustratingly mixed.
Flies the Fields, their long-awaited full-length in 2005, went over the bewildered heads of post-rock followers like a lead balloon. A nice antidote to the increasingly precious experimental rock of the day, maybe, but one can only have a certain amount of love for a collection of riffs pacing about the same circumscribed space. What was ostensibly to be a remedy to that bungled attempt was thwarted when Jason Noble became quite ill and others gained spouses and children in the five years since then, yet in its place is a peculiar success and Shipping News’ second-best record. One Less Heartless to Fear culls live material—mostly new songs—recorded at Tokyo’s O-Nest in 2006 and Louisville, KY’s Skull Alley in 2009, demonstrating that in the time away from the studio, they transformed into a post-hardcore band à la Touch & Go, playing meaty riffage and squalls of noise. Whether they wanted to take Shipping News somewhere else or figured that noodling doesn’t play out well in a concert setting, it was a wise decision.
Purely from what we hear, it’s not entirely clear which songs came from which venue. That makes the record feel fairly seamless and lends it credibility as the proper full-length it’s being pitched as. Moreover, Shipping News kept the aesthetic constant over the three years between shows, as if they’d recorded all of Heartless on one fruitful night. The live recording emits a rough-hewn crackle that works with the music, similar to Jesus Lizard’s Goat with the exception of the drums, which don’t pop like Steve Albini can make them. Also, some tracks include the sound of whoops and applause while others don’t—initially distracting, but ultimately a non-issue after steady listening. The upside to the few recording woes is that it has the oddly hallowed feel of a rare cassette tape you find for 25 cents in a pawnshop or sold by the band to a few lucky people at a single concert. It’s a tiny reminder, for those who choose to see it this way, that the days of cassettes and the D.I.Y. spirit of post-hardcore are receding into history.
Yet Shipping News play as if tightening their dynamic and kicking up enough of a din can turn back time. Even in the live setting, the four players sound incredibly in tune with each other. But the biggest change from previous records is how brawny and compelling the songs are, and the upticks in excitement and songwriting quality allow the band’s cohesion to shine. At the start, “Antebellum” storms in with what could be called a Southern swagger if it weren’t so lean and precise, the snare drum driving everything forward like a steam engine toward a wall. By the sound of the applause, the audience is both pumped and slightly surprised. It leads seamlessly into “This Is Not an Exit”, an elliptical hardcore groove elevated by Shipping News’ math-rock-bred musicianship. Heartless chugs along in this fashion, confidently and mightily, with a few sweet curveballs: “Bad Eve”, for one, has Jeff Mueller incanting surreal street poetry with the conviction of a governor at the lectern. Even the two older tracks aren’t as bloodless as they were on Flies the Fields. Heartless lacks a standout, but it gets so many things right that it doesn’t really matter. It’s nothing if not authentic, like Shipping News themselves, and given their current circumstances, it isn’t a stopgap, but a gift.