[25 January 2009]
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Austin, Texas are two cities that will likely never be confused for one another; obvious matters of geography, climate, and history separate the two. Musically speaking, Austin has served as the recent mecca of American indie rock. Philly is less known as a musical metropolis, though its rightful place as dwelling place to some of soul music’s giants (Solomon Burke, Gamble and Huff, Patti LaBelle, Boyz II Men, et al) should be acknowledged more often.
Of late, several bands from Philly have asserted themselves on the rock scene, suggesting the city may become the site of an indie uprising. Acts like Dr. Dog, the Capitol Years and the War on Drugs have garnered critical acclaim and popular notice. With their third album, the members of National Eye have proved just as attention-worthy as their brothers from the City of Brotherly Love.
The Farthest Shore was originally conceived, as the band’s bio states, “as a short-ish musical movie (featuring a type of animation that hasn’t been invented yet) telling the story of a young man who embarks on a quest to find someone he has inadvertently turned invisible.” Dreams of the film or other subsequent incarnations (graphic novel, children’s book, etc.) eventually faded away; as the bio states, “…after an exhausting year of insane ideas, National Eye finally decided to move on and just put out the songs as songs, the album as an album, and let the Broadway Musical version (for instance) of The Farthest Shore exist solely in the fevered brains of the band and its fans.”
While The Farthest Shore may be the concept album that never was, it’s still a very fine album. The songs stand alone. One need not possess a wild, fantastical imagination to enjoy the terrific songwriting and tremendous soundscapes the band engages in; the musical colors they create are sufficiently vivid.
Stylistically, National Eye treads the ground between power pop and psychedelia, resembling a far more subdued version of the Flaming Lips or a spacier manifestation of Wilco’s sound. The album’s best tracks contain a solid core of evocative melodies and accessible structures which create enough musical space and capital with the audience to wander, roam, and tinker. In its exploration, National Eye is adept at creating swirling crescendos and building anticipation. In every case, the payoff is sensational.
The record begins with a bit of programmatic music, as"Installed in the Dark” opens with white noise and string figures that play a role similar to the opening bars of a musical or film. Therein lies the only lingering effects of the band’s original vision: occasionally, songs begin or end with transitory passages and, at times, arrangements shift gears to reflect a change in mood. Forty-five seconds into the first track, however, Richard Flom’s deep, drowsy vocals enter the ears (his vocals are reminiscent of Beck’s at many times throughout the record) and listeners are attentive only to the great rock music that’s on the way.
“Arepolamina”, which follows, has a great late ‘60s/early ‘70s power pop backbeat. One of the album’s better tunes, the song exists as a musical cousin to the tunes found on Wilco’s Summerteeth . The tracks which come next, “Slow Boat to Trinidad” and “Eva the Atom-Smasher”, are no less glorious. The first starts with countrified guitars and electric piano before gentle strings and floating background vocals lend a sense of buoyancy. The latter provides a marriage between folk shuffle and spaced-out pop; the verse melody is terrific as is the piano coda which ties up the track.
National Eye shows its versatility on cuts such as “Like an Elephant”; the album’s most immediately urgent rocker also incorporates a solid, swinging breakdown and backwoods/front-porch acoustic guitars. The only places where the band’s genre flexibility don’t work are on “Through Fields of Fixed Stars”, a song that takes far too long to get going and which sounds like a reject from Beck’s Mutations sessions, and the instrumental-only “Prestidigitation Waltz (No. 2)”. These tunes never fully get off the ground to match the band’s high hopes in recording them.
Otherwise, the album is solid through and through. It ends exceedingly well with a trio of tracks that reinforce the collection’s overall vision. “Several Beaches” is a lilting shuffle, a summer song to add light in the dead of winter. “Pure Film” opens with sounds that give the feeling of an old-time Crosby/Hope Road to… movie before morphing into a high-quality, mid-tempo modern rock tune.
The album’s closer and title track is yet another argument for leaving audiences wanting more. “The Farthest Shore” is six minutes of delicate and beautiful songwriting; Flom’s melody is tragic and heartwarming all at once. If this tune is representative of what National Eye is and could be, there are but good things to come.