In the 2001 film, Hannibal, Julianne Moore’s Clarice Starling listens to a cassette recording of Hannibal Lecter discussing roller pigeons with orderly Barney:
“Do you know what a roller pigeon is, Barney? They climb high and fast, then roll over and fall just as fast toward the earth. There are shallow rollers and deep rollers. You can’t breed two deep rollers, or their young will roll all the way down, hit and die. Officer Starling is a deep roller, Barney. We should hope one of her parents was not.”
Like the native Old World passerine bird from which Clarice Starling’s name was derived by author Thomas Harris, Portland, Oregon trio Greylag has taken its name from a species of feral geese whose migratory nature is similar to the paths taken by band members from disparate parts of the United States before flocking together in the Pacific Northwest. This shared geography informs Greylag’s self-titled debut album.
Relishing in melody and simplistic, repetitive compositions, indie-folk forebearers Fleet Foxes and Band of Horses are quickly recalled. No surprise, given production duties were handled by Phil Ek, a veteran of the Seattle music scene who worked with both bands at their respective outsets. Opener “Another” sets the tone — and structure — for the following eight songs on the concise Greylag. Utilizing a standard verse-chorus-bridge structure, songs quickly take on a familiar feel regardless of their sonic tint: abrupt endings and choruses that aim for anthem status as on the blunt riffing of “Yours to Shake” and the bluesy “Mama”, a Led Zeppelin number filtered through Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Far from being the lone blues entry on Greylag, the marshy “Black Sky” also nods to Plant, Page, Jones and Bonham in much the same way The Black Keys is wont to do of late. Toying with dynamic shifts, “Burn On” provides the requisite bass drum thump throughout the song’s build and subsequent waning.
With echoes of the late Jeff Buckley’s golden throat evident on the earthen “Arms Unknown” and sparse closing hymn, “Walk the Night”, frontman Andrew Stonestreet deserves better than to recite hackneyed lyrics like “I wake up every morning with a pregnant head / The baby’s spilling out and crying to be fed / Sometimes it doesn’t even want to wait that long” on the hazy “Kicking”, and motivational tripe such as “One foot down / Put the other in the front / And begin to walk” on “One Foot”, which strives for Zig Ziglar quotability.
Like the band’s namesake bird, Greylag follows rather than leads, traversing domesticated grounds and tested sounds of bands that have come before. Lacking the lyrical depth of fellow Portlanders Horse Feathers or musical range of Blitzen Trapper, Greylag plays it safe, constantly hovering at a middling height. Interesting in measured doses, as a whole Greylag neither soars or falls like Lecter’s elegant roller pigeons; given its formulaic approach, Greylag is a derivative and ultimately redundant debut. In the words of Dr. Lecter: “You fly back to school, now … Fly, fly, fly…”