[25 January 2012]
Orienteers’ self described “space-folk” combines minor-key arrangements of guitar, piano and pedal steel with vivid textures of fuzzed-out guitar feedback and ethereal keyboard tones for a sound that strongly references the work of early millennial pop experimentalists such as Sparklehorse and Yo La Tengo. Upon first listen, it may be tempting to dismiss this band out of Ottawa, Canada as simply retreading the familiar course that these other artists charted years before. And songwriter Ben Wilson’s singing voice does bear more than a passing resemblance to Mark Linkous’ fragile, whispery vocal stylings. However, Wilson’s songwriting displays an artistry and attention to detail that is inspired rather than merely derivative of these formative influences. Moreover, Orienteers is a uniquely well-crafted album as a whole, alternating between sparse and skeletal instrumental passages and a progression of songs that combines the comfortable immediacy of acoustic instrumentation with intriguing experimental flourishes of studio effects and noise.
The slowly unfolding pace of the album is established by the opening passage of layered, descending guitar lines which leads into the choir boy vocals and softly churning rhythm of stand out track “Walking Song”. Reverb-laden guitars, light and feathery pedal steel and shuffling, understated brush work set the album’s dreamy and world weary tone, as Wilson sings, “The only drug for mercurial minds / Is to follow that winding road,” in his hushed and pensive tenor. Themes of unfettered movement and travel continue throughout the album, which would make an ideal soundtrack to a long, chemically enhanced road trip through lonely and barren rural landscapes.
Other highlights include the hypnotic “A Hymn for the Old Salt”, which blends keyboard atmospherics with intricate patterns of finger picking and wind chime tones, and “Mastodon” in its asymmetric layering of feedback squalls with folksy acoustic strumming. All of the Orienteers’ diverse musical elements cohere most strikingly in the penultimate track, “I Tried To Picture Us”. This song opens with sedated, intertwining lines of guitar and piano that build into a steady, pulsating rhythm, accented with ascending brass tones, and finally culminates in the thickly distorted down strokes and crashing cymbals of the song’s climactic refrain. It’s a dramatic combination of tension and release that works to bring the album to a satisfying coda.
At only 32 minutes, Orienteers is an album that leaves you wanting more. Wilson’s ability to blend indie-folk minimalism with experimental noise and harmonically complex instrumental arrangements places his work solidly alongside that of his influences. While this particular brand of “space-folk” may be a decade or so past its heyday, these are songs that can stand on their own without codification according to whatever indie rock sub-genres happen to be trending in the current moment. Wilson is a prolific artist who, in addition to his Orienteers project, has released work as a solo musician, and with the Ottawa bands That’s the Spirit and Polytones. So, one can hope that this album is just an early glimmer of what Orienteers has to offer.