[12 August 2007]
There is certainly little doubt surrounding Justin Russo and his musical abilities. As a former collaborative keyboardist for the influential ‘90s psyche-rockers Mercury Rev, he was exposed to a variety of songwriting methods by being a member of a band who never ceased to impress with an eclectic implementation of varying musical styles. When he left Mercury Rev in 2004, there was a considerable amount of skepticism regarding the stylistic intentions for his upcoming new output. Upon releasing the Silent League’s debut, The Orchestra, Sadly, Has Refused the same year, fans were greeted with surprise and delight as the critically acclaimed album etched visions of accessible chamber-pop and country influences, distancing Russo from his previous bandmates and into a separate artist altogether. Russo’s instrumental arsenal was also a particularly impressive aspect of the debut, delivering adeptly executed orchestral flurries of strings, brass, and guitars over Russo’s tenderly country-twanged vocals and dexterous piano abilities.
The Silent League’s sophomore effort, Of Stars and Other Somebodies, represents the improvement of the style that proved to be successful for the Silent League in their commendable debut. Russo returns with a bolstered confidence both in his vocal and instrumental ability, the songs being more collectively diverse and downright memorable due to a larger emphasis on pop hooks and melodic accessibility. Even though The Orchestra, Sadly, Has Refused was hardly the epitome of hesitation, it saw Russo venturing out into his own as he sought to establish a sound that was certainly not expected from longtime fans of his previous work with Mercury Rev. While the majority of tracks were bursting to the seams with laudable production and extravagant instrumentation, several songs lacked a melodic focus or dominant concept. Of Stars and Other Somebodies proves to be the more emotionally rousing of the two albums, as Russo finally seems comfortable with his majestically orchestral technique. Though the capacious orchestral accompaniments still play a large role, the importance of Russo’s whimsical vocal melodies now take central stage, resulting in an experience that is both largely worthwhile and candidly memorable.
The album’s most shining moment, the exceptional “Let It Roll”, is a definitive example of Russo’s newly originated melodic apprehension. In the lengthily rewarding introduction, he presents a form that he did not attempt often on his band’s debut. “Please let this roll over me ‘cause I don’t have what it takes”, Russo sings aptly over the bare, hushed sound of his piano, “and frankly I’m afraid, I’ve made mistakes before”. On tracks like “Canary in the Coalmine” and “Untied”, moments of similar instrumental minimalism and vocal prominence are consistent throughout; a structural aspect that was rare to behold on The Orchestra, Sadly, Has Refused. While “Let It Roll” eventually transcends into a beautiful ballad with a full-scale accompaniment, the sheer evolution from a bare piano to a breathtaking orchestral upheaval establishes the track as one of Russo’s most accomplished songs. The ardently chill-inducing chorus implements a variety of horns, backing vocals, and guitar progressions, sounding dramatically appropriate within the realm of Russo’s soaring vocals as he sings of romantically inspired regret and overgrown tradition. Such moments on Of Stars and Other Somebodies only serve to validate Russo’s progression as a melodically capable songwriter.
While “Let It Roll” serves as one of the most rewardingly somber tracks on the album, the Silent League’s reestablished knack for diversity is redeemed in more immediately excitable tracks like the lead single “Victim of Aeroplanes”. With an initial chord progression that draws modernistic comparisons to Arcade Fire, a series of trumpets builds up to a catchy chorus excelled by an array of guitars and twinkling keys. Speaking of guitars, “Out of Reach” is one of the rare tracks on the album where a guitar is the focal instrument. With an influential nod reaching out to the Flaming Lips, the Smashing Pumpkins, or the most blatant in Mercury Rev, an airy synth pad collides with an electric guitar progression through Russo’s entrancing, dream-like vocals. Even if the instrumental transition feels somewhat out of place compared to the rest of the album, “Out of Reach” is delightful in its own stylistic sense, providing another spoonful of diversity on an album that reaps from plenty of it. Even when Russo tries his hand at lyrical storytelling in the captivating “Untied”, he does it with apparent ease. While those who had heard The Orchestra may have previously held doubts on whether or not Russo’s vocal melody and lyrical content could carry a song on its own, gems like “Let It Roll”, “Untied”, and “Kings & Queens” serve as more than enough justification.
In an additional display of ambition, tracks like the near-instrumental “The Tolka, Not the Liffey” and the entirely instrumental “Second Canary Test” could just as easily be the score to an old-fashioned romance film, with their sweeping strings, suave saxophone, and percussive flexibility. Perhaps Russo has a career to fall back on if, for whatever unrighteous reason, he tires of writing nearly flawless chamber-pop ballads. Regardless, let’s just hope that the Silent League can stick together for quite some time if their successive releases are as enjoyable and boldly rewarding as Of Stars and Other Somebodies.