In the 1960s, central planners in the Soviet Union established “science cities” where experts in various disciplines were gathered in a bid to supercharge society’s technological progress. Much more recently in the other vast northerly expanse that is Canada, fully-fledged music scenes have popped up quite naturally and very nearly as quickly, producing in place of supercomputers and nuclear reactors a seemingly endless stream of quality pop and rock records. Perhaps foremost among these music cities is Vancouver, where rap and witch house rubs shoulders with the earnest indie rock of Said the Whale, formed there in 2007.
A sense of place is key is crucial to the band’s third LP Little Mountain. Named after the Vancouver neighbourhood where the group reside, the album contains at least one paean to the city and features two other songs in which – as fellow Canadians Woodpigeon once put it – “love plays games with geography”. Not only that, but the tracklisting covers a lot of ground: at 15 songs and almost fifty minutes Little Mountain sticks around, wants to make a mark on the world.
Unfortunately, our Vancouver five-piece too often squander the wide open canvas they have set up for themselves. What might have been a breakthrough opus for this obviously talented group has instead manifested as something surprisingly scattershot, too dominated by several wandering, mid-tempo songs which never deliver on their promise nor add anything that really complements the stronger tracks that are here.
But what strong tracks they are: opener “We Are 1980” is a promising, pounding anthem with lyrics that place Said the Whale at odds with the alienating trends of the information age, while “Loveless” — arguably the album’s creative and emotional climax but delivered far too soon — offers up an irresistible chorus that ponders “how could I love you less / now that I know you more?” Interesting things are happening elsewhere, too — not least the very acrobatic melody used on the piano-driven “The Reason”.
As propulsive as these isolated moments are, Said the Whale never allow them to inject the album as a whole with the energy and pace it soon so sorely needs. Quite conversely, leaden and repetitive numbers like “O Alexandra”, “Big Sky, MT” and “Hurricane Ada” leech away any sense of flow, especially on repeat listens. As well-thought out as some of these songs are within themselves, they chew up precious time on the record just as they make less, rather than more, of a coherent and flowing work.
Like expensive jam, there’s much to like about Said the Whale and Little Mountain but it’s spread very thinly. It’s a testament to the Vancouver band’s growing confidence in themselves that they would even attempt such a project, but it’s a more focused and less sprawling future effort that will showcase this band at their best.