San Fermin's second outing offers extensive chamber pop that's both exhilarating and exhausting.
After the first jaunt through San Fermin’s newest it-takes-a-village effort Jackrabbit, one song wafted around my mind: the live performance of Sigur Rós’ “Hoppipolla/Með blóðnasir” from their live DVD Heima. Gorgeous, serene vocals danced with pleasantly submissive instruments until an abrupt shift into an onslaught of bells, a chorus of vocals, and the collective euphoric tears of the Icelanders in the audience (and the Icelandphiles watching from home). Though there was a slight composition formula to San Fermin’s self-titled debut, the “Hoppipolla” strategy is employed on nearly every song on Jackrabbit, making for an altogether enthralling and, eventually, tiring listen.
The Icelanders played surrounded by picturesque mountains and one of the last unblemished skies on earth. No explicit setting is given, but it’s hard to shake the mystical woodland feel of Jackrabbit. Refusing the linear birth-death narrative, ringleader Ellis Ludwig-Leone engulfs the first track “The Woods” with a story of young lovers venturing towards death in the titular sylvan setting. Nature returns throughout the album, and rarely as the terrestrial asylum that woodland symbolism likes to command. Instead, “Emily” traps Ellis “down, down, down the rabbit hole” of his desires, ones that the chorus laments will never be satisfied. Instrumental “The Cave” finishes the definitive nature series, but the cluttered refreshment of the outdoors remains evident.
San Fermin has been described as “chamber pop” in the past, and it’s not hard to imagine Jackrabbit being composed in a medieval chamber, a Canterbury Tales-sized group huddled together flawlessly executing the layered compositions until a rogue jester stumbles in, mead and ale kissing the air, destructively smashing the instruments into one another. Except for that smashing lasts for extended periods, and it more often than not works. Equally medieval, and tied to the formula, is the gender dynamic that permeates Jackrabbit. Newcomer Charlene Kaye’s angelic vocals always follow Ludwig-Leone’s individual performances, offering little more than responses centering on desires of pleasing men and objectified sexuality (“Ladies Mary”, “The Philosopher”). It’s no wonder, then, why her shining track “Jackrabbit” advises “Run for the hills!” When “Woman In Red” is exactly what you’d think the title entails, switching off this orchestrally-gifted performance to ship off a copy of Braids’ “Miniskirt” seems like an acceptable move.
So forges on the partial story of love in an undefined temporal setting. Unlike the clear concept of San Fermin, Jackrabbit pushes similar concepts glossed over in different packages. “Billy Bibbit” sets to music the story of the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest character in all its Oedipal glory. But the tale’s set backwards compared to the album as a whole, with the first advisement -- “Give in to love” -- making its way down to the somber, “Billy, we’re all gonna die / So I wouldn’t try to force it.” Such seems a curtained theme of the album -- sure, we’re talking all about love, but what’s the point? This futility never grasps a full development, despite the band of merry players, a perfect group to contrast pleading hopelessness with sparkling opposition.
The foibles in surface-level character development thankfully get overshadowed for much of the album with the undeniable charm of the orchestral pop sound. As the frantic explosions of sound carry emotions with them, the formula works through standard medieval soundtrack music to freak folk gone art rock and back. Unfortunately, the final three songs on Jackrabbit prove too alike the previous offerings to sustain a focused listen. San Fermin belts greatness and has perfected a template, but for the band to move from next Arcade Fire to first San Fermin, they must travel down that rabbit hole and learn some new tricks.