Music

Denali: The Instinct

Marc Hogan

Denali

The Instinct

Label: Jade Tree
US Release Date: 2003-10-28
UK Release Date: Available as import
Amazon
iTunes

The worst part about freezing to death would be the sheer boredom. You'd lose feeling throughout your body well before unconsciousness set in, and all you'd be able to see -- if you even could open your eyes -- would be snow and ice. Nothing but dentist's-office numbness and blank-paper whiteness until the inevitable finally arrived.

That, if anything, is the lesson of The Instinct, the frigid sophomore release by indie-rock quartet Denali, out since August on Jade Tree. Lead vocalist and songwriter Maura Davis boasts a lovely, classically trained voice that nearly deserves its frequent comparisons to Beth Gibbons of Portishead, and her band, led by brother Keeley, shows similar skill in building intricate rock soundscapes around her. But like so many polished musicians before her, Davis can't seem to write a single memorable song. The Instinct isn't a bad record, especially if you like your music a tad frost-bitten; it's just boring.

Consider Denali the anti-emo. In 2002, Jade Tree needed to sign a group that would help disassociate it from the movement it had helped spawn, or else risk being lumped in with newly whiny pop-punk bands aping "emo" for MTV to the point of self-parody.

Enter Denali. The band takes its name from Alaska's Denali National Park, and though the official bio claims the group formed in Richmond, Virginia, it's much easier to picture Denali's music rising out of a glacier in the Arctic -- someplace very beautiful and very, very cold.

"Too many sensations now," Davis proclaims on opener "Hold Your Breath". "No one feels like I do," she adds one track later. But frankly, it's hard to imagine her feeling anything

The Instinct mostly departs from the trip-hop electronics of the band's self-titled debut, instead favoring an angular, atmospheric guitar attack that might be a bit "warmer" -- Jade Tree's website insists that is -- but in the same way that Alaska is probably warmer than the North Pole. The new album sounds like someone took Pretty Girls Make Graves, gave them downers, and replaced their lead vocalist Andrea Zollo with Barbra Streisand (no, seriously -- see the soaring chorus on Denali's "Nullaby").

"Normal Days" recalls the Jeff Buckley no one wants to remember -- the one whose bombastic vocals occasionally masked a difficulty writing melodies. "Real Heat" is a stomping, Gothic march with little warmth, real or otherwise. The sometimes jagged, sometimes swirling guitar and keyboard riffs throughout the album showcase well-studied technique, but after they glide by, they leave nothing tangible to grasp.

If the album has a theme, it takes vague shape in the title track, a tale about a dehumanizing sexual relationship -- cold as ice and equally fragile. "I will be with you only for a while / That's all I can take," Davis sings amid lyrics that at times get lost in her displays of virtuosity. "Moving slowly in the dark / Eyes can be open or shut," she adds on the subsequent song, "Do Something", concluding, "All I am now / Fall far away down".

T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" it's not, but at least it shows that the album's wintry emotional distance is a result of misguided intentions rather than just poor execution. Still whatever The Instinct was aiming for, it didn't hit it: Most of the lyrics are as unremarkable as the ones quoted above, further robbing the record of any human resonance.

When the snow blows over, Denali clearly has the brains and the chops to make a solid album. All they need is something interesting to say. In the meantime, wait until January, when you can get the full Denali experience by sitting outside for a few hours.

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Award-winning folk artist Karine Polwart showcases humankind's innate link to the natural world in her spellbinding new music video.

One of the breakthrough folk artists of our time, Karine Polwart's work is often related to the innate connection that humanity has to the natural world. Her latest album, A Pocket of Wind Resistance, is largely reliant on these themes, having come about after Polwart observed the nature of a pink-footed geese migration and how it could be related to humankind's intrinsic dependency on one another.

Keep reading... Show less
Film

Victory Is Never Assured in ‘Darkest Hour’

Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour (2017) (Photo by Jack English - © 2017 FOCUS FEATURES LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. / IMDB)

Joe Wright's sharp and only occasionally sentimental snapshot of Churchill in extremis as the Nazi juggernaut looms serves as a handy political strategy companion piece to the more abstracted combat narrative of Dunkirk.

By the time a true legend has been shellacked into history, almost the only way for art to restore some sense of its drama is to return to the moment and treat it as though the outcome were not a foregone conclusion. That's in large part how Christopher Nolan's steely modernist summer combat epic Dunkirk managed to sustain tension; that, and the unfortunate yet dependable historical illiteracy of much of the moviegoing public.

Keep reading... Show less
7
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image