Clouds is one of those albums that frustrates the listener's critical capacities. You spend half your time trying to decide if you actually like what you're listening to. In that respect, the Ivory Coast are like any number of other indie rock bands. A certain melody hooks you in, but the vocals grate on the nerves, or a beautiful track folds around you and lulls you into its rhythm only to dissolve into pointlessly screeching feedback. It comes with the territory, and is actually part of the enjoyment of the music, but it's still mildly irritating. And in trying to evaluate Clouds, it's impossible to say whether the disc is intentionally sloppy, or just a poor effort.
As the disc gets underway, it seems like just another indie rock album showing off its post-punk pedigree. The first four tracks ("Lake Placid 1986", "Five Little Graves", "Swope", and "Things a Sword Would Say") sound like a throw-back to the mid-'80s underground, when modern rock bands who still remembered their punk predecessors were fighting against New Wave with sharp, messy, guitar-driven rave ups. Loose songs with choppy riffs and off-key vocals, these three songs are rockist enough, even if they seemingly offer very little surprise.
But then the good folks in the Ivory Coast start taking things into slightly more ambiguous territory. "Sixty-Five Percent" seems like more of the same at first, if perhaps a little heavier on the pop than the rock but, halfway through, the song jumps tracks from the contemplative, slow tune it was to a churning, then grinding rocker. The guitars begin to climb scales and the distortion is cranked up, and indie rock suddenly gives way to SonicYouth-like tensions. The song resolves itself as a battle between the mellower opening of the track and its more aggressive second movement. The songs that follow waver similarly between melody and chaotic guitar noise.
Then there's the epic closer, "There Will Be Clouds". One of the most well-crafted songs on the disc, it could be a mini-classic if it didn't collapse into an endless jam. Although the song begins with dramatic guitars and a downtrodden emo tone, it suddenly brightens up into an almost bright pop song. The melody wavers back and forth between the two moods until the vocals have finished and the song is stripped down to a simple beat with the melody plucked out over it. Just when you think the song would stop, it picks up again and becomes an experiment in mutating repetition. The melody finally drifts away only to be replaced with quiet, uninteresting fills and returns to the melody as the musicians play off each other. At almost 15 minutes in length, it's a perfect pop song ruined by over-indulgence in artsy pretense.
One of the things that makes Clouds difficult to decide on is Jay Cox's voice. At times the off-key thing works, such as in "There Will Be Clouds" and "Five Little Graves", but too often it just sounds painful. What would otherwise be a short, bittersweet and excellent tune in "Daily Routine" is made almost impossible to listen to by the screeching vocals of Cox. Singing badly may be indie, but ruining your songs doesn't make it good. The brutal key changes in "Things a Sword Would Say" are enough to make you think your disc is warped.
Yet, despite the schizophrenic style shifts, the Ivory Coast is a band of really great musicians. As songwriters they have a great sense of their genre and create interesting songs both lyrically and musically. Songs like "Swope" are all-out fun rockers that mix in just the right punk touches, while tracks like "Five Little Graves" show the Ivory Coast to be equally adept at handling slow, thoughtful tunes. If there's a saving grace to Clouds, one thing that will make you leave it in your CD player for weeks at a time, it's that there is something truly compelling (even if not incredibly original) in their sound.
So it all comes down to where your priorities lie in music. If you couldn't care one whit whether or not the lead singer can actually sing, you'll probably be able to give this a run through and really enjoy it. If you like indie rock in general, then the Ivory Coast are certainly worth familiarizing yourself with. But if you're picky about things like harmony and innovation, you might find Clouds to be a waste of time. The best I can say is give it a listen and decide for yourself.