[14 May 2014]
This album is something of a grower. Saintseneca is an Ohio-based folk-rock band built around the acoustic guitar and odd, warbling voice of frontman Zac Little, whose jarring excursions into the realm of off-kilter vocalizations set the tone from the opening bars of lead track “Blood Bath”. Saintseneca aims for the same wonky-acoustic vibe as, say Bon Iver, but go about it in a very different way, substituting Bon Iver’s breathy sincerity and hushed tones with a series of yodels, howls and gurgles that are initially off-putting. Over time and with repeated listens, however, Little’s vocalizations begin to make a kind of tortured sense. How much sense, exactly, will depend on each listener’s patience.
That patience is apt to get tested from time to time. The picked guitar underpinning Little’s vocals on “Blood Bath” is soon joined by rattling percussion and enough harmonizing vocals to fill out the sound, and this fullness only gets greater in the song’s second half, which throws in some droning electric wails as well. “Happy Alone” is the most sonically rich track here, with layers of reverb echoing in the background, particularly on the chorus, while on rave-ups like “Takmit” the band is in full-on barn-burner mode. Even such tunes, though, are built squarely around Little’s self-consciously unorthodox vocals. It’s impossible to ignore his presence, as he remains the band’s focus throughout.
Generally, the band treads the line between folkie introspection and rock ‘n’ roll aggression, with introspection winning out much of the time. “Falling Off” is typical of the band’s approach, with sudden shifts in dynamics and tempos that constantly point the listener back to the vocals. The (relatively) noisy interludes serve as punctuation marks for the quieter sections, something like late-era Nirvana, only without the guitar distortion and heroin.
If all this sounds kind of exhausting, well, yeah. The matter isn’t helped by Little mopey’s lyrics, which both reinforce and are reinforced by tempos that tend toward the dirge-like, and a delivery that often verges on the throwaway, even as lyrics focus on themes of loss, betrayal, ending and decrepitude. Fun stuff? No. Compelling? Occasionally. Still, you kind of want to hear him sing a song about girls and beers, or something, at least once. Oh well, we can always take another spin through “Only the Good Die Young”.
Album closer “We Are All Beads on the Same String” is a sad, pretty little tune consisting of an acoustic guitar, Little’s voice and nothing more. Vocal hijinx are few, although there’s a bit of warbling falsetto: it’s a simple tune, simply played, with plenty of heart. Such tunes are the album’s strongest.
However, there’s more to Saintseneca than its singer, and if the band is to move forward, they’ll need to find a way to incorporate that singer into a fuller sound. Some listeners will find this to be powerful rainy-day music, the kind of stuff to get lost in while staring out the window at the rain. Most of us, though, will run out of patience long before the end.