Great Northern: Remind Me Where the Light Is

[27 April 2009]

By Dan Raper

Great Northern are a band from Los Angeles, and they’ve previously released an album, Trading Twilight for Daylight, and an EP, Sleepy Eepee (which was recorded before the debut but re-released last year). Still, Remind Me Where the Light Is, the band’s second LP, has the feeling of a debut. Maybe that’s the problem: Although Sleepy Eepee seemed an enjoyable listen at the time, it has also proved to be largely forgettable, as Great Northern have faded into the great unwashed mass of indie-pop boy-girl groups. How are they ever going to climb out?

The band answers by gearing up for greater and more mainstream things. Remind Me Where the Light Is sets its sights firmly on mainstream-rock radio and never looks back, grasping at modern success-story referents with both hands. Now they have the Killers’ steady, upbeat-pop take on new wave; now they ape Coldplay’s major triad melodies and piano arpeggii. At least the group previously had some small measure of self-aware wit; however, here, it has been traded for conventionalities and clichés. One thing Great Northern could claim as semi-unique is a use of drone-like guitar fuzz, neatly kept in the background to build atmosphere. Here, too, though, the band occasionally strays into other groups’ territory. “Mountain”, for instance, tries for something like Arcade Fire-like triumphalism with big, rolling percussion and tremolo guitars. It’s atmospheric, true, but a studio can’t recreate the sound of a large ensemble sawing its heart out.

Occasionally, though, Great Northern’s anthemic choruses do feel earned. “Fingers”, with its refrain (“It’s the weight of the world that we’re under”) has all the same components: gentle fuzz, chugging piano and big strings, but somehow it captures that nostalgic feeling well. On the slower songs like “Warning”, where the pattering drum machine recalls the Postal Service, the band employs echo and tonal juxtaposition effectively. “New Tricks” does, as promised, try something different, and the experiment pays off, sounding more relaxed and more dissonant. The song works because, for once, the group breaks out of a completely conventional songwriting mode. There’s even—no, really—some dissonance.

However, taking the album as a whole, the group falls into compositional pitfalls a few too many times. They use sustained vocal lines pitched in similar ranges, and melodically the material sounds super tame. Most of the choruses don’t rise far above the verses and instead rely on repetition rather than melody to hammer home a refrain. Quite simply, the group writes short phrases that rise or fall in single tones. Furthermore, you’ll recognize some melodies from pop hits recent and distant. Simon Bixler’s vocals aren’t quite as compelling as Rachel Stolte’s, though they share that alternative groaning delivery –- again, conventional and intended for radio, which has been Great Northern’s strategy.

Its songs have appeared on commercials and video games and movies, and the project’s clearly a commercial-minded enterprise. If you heard one of these choruses in isolation you might be momentarily caught. The album’s cleanly produced and confidently performed, and the material has been polished up until it shines brightly at first. But a few repetitions quickly drain Remind Me Where the Light Is of much of its impact.

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