The recent proliferation of the stripped-down duo has recast rock music as troglodytic, immediate, and raw. It seems like you can't swing Jack White from his polyester pants without hitting another two-piece wrecking machine with a minimalist aesthetic. Bands burn through good money in expensive studios and ask for a shaggy garage sound. Apparently, less is the new more.
Which is why it's so refreshing to hear Last Boat, the debut album by Brent Arnold and the Spheres. Cinematic in scope, methodically surprising, and densely layered in sound, the nine-song offering is a thicket in a world of twigs, a hidden abyss in a neighborhood of ponds. The album patiently unfolds like a map across a table, each song its own charted portion of a greater whole. Every track is loaded with prominent, assured string arrangements, but don't mistake Last Boat for twee chamber music: the band manhandles orchestral pop and makes it rock.
From the opener "Mayfly", the Spheres announce themselves as a different kind of band. Cello and organ toss a woozy melody back and forth as the band pings and shifts, rising and falling like steady breathing. Arnold (whose voice is not unlike a young David Lowery or Jonathan Richman) sings of walking outside to watch the mayflies "swarm and die by night" and pledges, "As long as you are mine / I'm yours for the summertime". The song, like the change in seasons it describes, rollicks along to heady shifts in dynamics -- a style that sets the stage for the remainder of the album.
The songs on Last Boat are like vignettes from a feature-length film, successful on their own while remaining relevant to the album's greater vision. The title track's narrator narrowly misses the departure of a lover; funereal backing vocals call out, "Come back, sweetheart" as though they were asking the morning fog to lift. The heavens part after five minutes in "I Will", as the tempo is cut in half and an angelic chorus soars into sight -- if the song were a film, this would be its Keyser Soze ending. Even the instrumental "Kundalini" evokes its own scenery, Steadicam pans and character arcs within the span of a few minutes.
"I Broke the Seal", the album's epic seven-minute centerpiece, is a terrific example of the Spheres' ability to morph with ease. The song starts cryptically slow, a tremolo guitar chomping film noir surf chords alongside Arnold's voice. "I broke the seal / That held me in my skin / And now I can't tell / Where I end and the world begins" he sings with a soft confidence. After breaking for a brief interjection of solo strings, the band erupts out of thin air into an extended instrumental section of near-mythic proportions. The most interesting aspect of moments like this is that the arranged strings function as a lead instrument would; instead of comically hideous guitar solos, the Spheres provide engaging structural support while the strings rage on. Arnold's voice soon returns alone with the strings: "Just then a crack appeared in the sun / Blinded I reached out / And I could feel / I'd made it through / I broke the seal" -- an apt description of what his band had accomplished over the preceding minutes.
Arnold, who has appeared (as musician or arranger) on a number of albums by fellow Pacific Northwesterners Modest Mouse, Built to Spill, Sleater-Kinney, and Quasi, has launched his solo career with a unique and truly inspired band of likeminded musicians. Last Boat is difficult to classify (Chamber pop with muscles? Prog-rock minus the pyrotechnics?), but feels like a distant relative of Built to Spill's Perfect from Now On (both, incidentally, produced by Phil Ek). Its adventurous ambition is matched only by the fiery precision of the performances; the band sounds like it was born to play these songs.
Last Boat ends on a high note with its most infectious tune. "A Letter" is a persistently gorgeous two-minute pop song disguised as a five-minute mini-suite. Any other pop band would have ended the song at its logical point (roughly two minutes in, when the vocals cease and the extended coda begins) -- but the Spheres manage to engagingly stretch out the running time with not only a section of strings, but a rolling thunderstorm of a descending chord progression. "They always hoped you would change", Arnold sings in "A Letter", "And become boring and sane". Thank goodness he didn't listen to them.