Morningbell: Through the Belly of the Sea

[15 August 2007]

By Andrew Blackie

Sittin' on a Bubble

If, when you were young, you were a particularly inquisitive and/or intelligent reader, you may have been exposed to a type of book called ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ novels. These were written in the second person, and usually featured a wildly unbelievable scenario about navigating your way through the Amazon rainforest or finding the hidden pirates’ treasure by choosing which way to go at the end of every page. In short, it was one way of using up a few hours of spare time, and good exercise in page-flipping for the thumb, but nothing of high-class literature.

The thing is, a Floridian threepiece called Morningbell strongly disagree. So much so, in fact, that it’s no coincidence their latest album is titled Through the Belly of the Sea: A Choose Your Own Adventure Album. Taking the collective inspiration out of the storybooks of their youth, Through the Belly of the Sea is indeed the world’s first choose your own adventure album, an experience where we, the listener, become the intrepid explorer. Our quest: to brave monsters and deep-sea caves to reach the bottom of the sea floor in a little submarine.

It’s really an extraordinarily original concept this outfit has grasped, and breathes new life into the compact disc package in an age where it’s becoming redundant faster than it’s possible to keep track of, thanks to digital downloading. Furthermore, instead of wallowing in the unwritten rule of most bands that an album should be all about “I” or “us”, Morningbell give the fun back to the listener via the storyline’s personal interaction that, consequently, will have you jumping all over the album as you choose which way to go next. The more you immerse yourself in the recording’s twists and accompanying narrative, in fact, the better it seems to get: vocalist/guitarist Travis Atria, four-stringer Eric Atria and pianist Stacie Thrushman have all contributed admirable efforts to make Through the Belly of the Sea bear a strong resemblance to the depths of some unknown ocean.

The attention to detail is remarkably evocative, particularly during “The Octopus Walks Across the Coral” (if you think that’s an exotic track name, check out “Utopian Fantasy at the Center of the Earth”): a light, bubbly sequence of keyboard chords fit the music perfectly, effortlessly conjuring images of the isolated tranquillity of such a fantasy (“Octopus’ Garden” doesn’t have anything on this). On the other hand, tense, push-and-pull guitar workouts and shaky harmonies characterize “Lost Again!”, at which stage of the narrative we are battling a monster (“if you fight, go to chapter four, if you flee, go to chapter two”).

Overall, Through the Belly of the Sea is really just an extremely intelligent and well thought-out gimmick. The band describe themselves as “the Flaming Lips travel through time to save John Lennon and George Harrison and start their own band without Paul’s stupid lyrics.” If the album demanded classification it could be pegged as breezy, keyboard-based indie-rock, woven together with threadbare melodies, sung in an airy falsetto by Atria, who has a syrupy, angelic voice, somewhat reminiscent of the late Elliott Smith, that you could never imagine sounding angry.

The lack of self-seriousness in Morningbell’s art is a relief; their music is taking cues from Belle & Sebastian in being rather skeletal and unpretentious. The slide guitar which balloons and deflates in “Waiting on Sleep”, perhaps in imitation of a jellyfish, sounds so thoroughly detached from reality that it’s almost dream-like, while the lazy keyboard-tailing vocal ‘bah-bah-bahs’ in opener “The Speed of God” are borderline ironic in their simplicity.  The songs of Through the Belly of the Sea make up a structureless set, and that’s part of its appeal. It’s just a slight shame the songs don’t hold up so well as a whole. But even if Morningbell’s nothing-special indie niche isn’t ground-breaking, the album is more than worth checking out for its unique concept.

And why stop here? We need more from this three. I want to see chose your own adventure albums about sailing the seas as a pirate captain, and circumnavigating the world by plane, and trips in a time machine to save John Lennon and George Harrison. If the promise they deftly exhibit here is anything to go by, this album will be the one that breaks them out of Gainesville and gets them onto a major label.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/morningbell-through-the-belly-of-the-sea/