LA-based Bodies of Water play a familiar grab bag of recent indie touchstone sounds, from haunting female-led British folk on the opener “One Hand Loves the Other”, to vamping electric Neil Young rock with a country flair on “Open Rhythms”. They do it all with an ear for the melodramatic. It’s as if they were composing a musical about an indie band making an album. On their third album, Bodies of Water return to their own label Thousand Tongues (though they’re still associated with Secretly Canadian, who originally provided them with wider distribution). This album continues their pursuit of highly orchestrated, indie savant craftwork.
Bodies of Water hit all of the indie pieties of the moment: though they aren’t actually Canadian, the group consists of a husband/wife duo, David and Meredith Metcalf. Around the couple, who share lead vocal duties, a wide array of instruments craft a nuanced and textured mash of pop elements, so that you imagine a gypsy collective jamming intently into the night in a perfectly decorated throwback basement studio. But the preciousness of the scene only masks the breadth of their ambition. The sound they produce conjures an imaginary meeting of Neil Diamond with Françoise Hardy to duet on songs written by Neil Young and arranged by Burt Bacharach. The most remarkable aspect of the album is the precision of the instrumentation: strings, horns, guitar fills all come in to provide a perfect accent, never stealing the show, but marking their presence and bowing out.
David Metcalf’s voice is the main pitfall. He has a cheesy, almost crooning delivery that is too overbearing for the fragile music that the group crafts. His chesty baritone needs to be tempered by some fuzz, but the dirtiest the band gets is some spooky rockabilly reverb on the guitar on “New Age Nightmare”, which rounds out his nearly spoken delivery that conjures up thoughts of Scott Walker. On “Mary, Don’t You Weep”, the first song featuring his voice, the sound of rumbling Americana gets too overwrought in the crisp production, inflating a nice Springsteen inflection (dramatic in itself) to the point of parody. The song unleashes a crazy arsenal of references, from Mariachi horns to perfectly contained Beach Boys drum fills to mark the end of the song. Luckily, Meredith’s voice provides some relief, cutting in with a spoken line straight out of a campy girl group song and bringing a chorus duet over a disco bass line.
Meredith has a deadpan delivery that cuts through the overly earnest attack of her husband. On “Lights Out Forever”, she sings slow and low in chanteuse fashion a melody that may as well be a traditional Gallic folk song. The nice progression of acoustic guitar chords is only momentarily punctuated with a trumpet solo to conjure up a strange hybrid ambience of, say, a French café on Haight-Ashbury.
The band seems to have dropped some of its proggy pretensions in favor of re-creation of the sculpted sounds of various ‘60s scenes. In other words, a little bagginess would benefit the album. But excess is rare save for David’s voice. The standout track, “Open Rhythms”, has a loose and repetitive vamp that could be Neil Young, but discovers prettier territory when Meredith comes in to sing an old school country arpeggio for the chorus. The wandering of this track cancels the calculation that most of the other tracks foreground.
There’s something of a put-on here, like the band desperately wants to rediscover an atmosphere, to make hipster music for Euro basement jazz clubs. Not that this is bad — in fact it’s very good music, perfectly recorded and neatly arranged. But you can hear the effort to replicate the sounds — even as they mix together different styling — and that makes the album sound backdated. All the work went into the craft rather than the songs themselves. What’s lacking are memorable melodies: the very thing one needs to make the crisp pop production perfected in the ’60s sparkle like new.