Canadian rock co-op Broken Social Scene has spawned a lot of praise, and at the same time cast a huge shadow over the indie-rock scene. An added benefit has been an increased appreciation for other projects by the group's 11 members. Along with contributing vocalist Emily Haines's band Metric, BSS guitarist John Crossingham's group Raising the Fawn is truly deserving of an obstacle-free trip into the limelight.
Of course, deserving such a trip rarely guarantees its occurrence. Similar to Metric's first release, Raising the Fawn's debut album, The North Sea, sat collecting dust for nearly two years before finally seeing daylight, during which time singer/guitarist Julie Booth and drummer Jon Drew both left the band to pursue non-musical interests. Out at last on Ontario label Sonic Unyon, it's a record well worth exploring.
Having been around in some form or other, and in some state of hibernation or other, since 1997, RTF's work is as accomplished and polished as one could hope. The North Sea is a difficult album to categorize, alternately bouncy and falsetto-filled or trippy, instrumental drone-rock, often dark and always intriguing. It's a concept album that isn't quite telling a story, but instead uses instrumentation to evoke feelings and memories. And since it's called The North Sea, you're right to expect a nautical theme.
In particular, "Top to Bottom" is a fine example of this nautical rock. It opens with a low, sliding bass line that is instantly reminiscent of Les Claypool's bowed bass line at the opening of "Sailing the Seas of Cheese" as well as the creaking ropes and boards of an 18th-century merchant marine vessel. The swooping bass is interrupted briefly with a single, echoing tone, credited in the liner notes as "sonar guitar", that sounds for all the world like the ping of a radar in The Hunt for Red October. On top of it all is Crossingham's cryptic, washed-out falsetto, and despite having no concrete meaning, nautical or otherwise, the song is haunting and captivating.
"The News", the first track on The North Sea, opens with erstwhile bandmate Julie Booth's breathy a cappella singing, somewhat reminiscent of what David Roos at Salon recently labeled "the vaguely ethnic wail" used to evoke sheer epic-ness in films from Gladiator to the Lord of the Rings trilogy to Troy. Following close behind Booth's voice is Scott Remila's plodding, methodical bass and Crossingham's island-slide guitar, and like all the tracks on The North Sea, the basic rock elements combine to make something much more interesting than the sum of its parts.
The North Sea takes about 11 minutes to get fully warmed up. After "The News", "Home" follows much the same pattern, with drummer Jon Drew's brushed snare and tambourine, more thumping staccato bass, and Crossingham's steady, high vocals. But with "Gwendolyn," the first single off the album, RTF finally unfurls the sails and pulls out all the stops. A joyous ode to a long-forgotten ship "lost beneath the Southern Cross", "Gwendolyn" unloads a buoyant bass, triumphant vocal melodies, cornets and vibraphones like so many musical cannonballs into the broadside of your head.
After "Gwendolyn", nautical themes occur sporadically through The North Sea, most notably in the title track. "The North Sea" is a surly, drunken shanty sung on and about rough seas. Sandwiched between lilting, acoustic intros and outros, the song introduces an intricate power-chord chorus the evokes the complexity of Tool's dark metal as much as "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" from the forthcoming Wilco album, A Ghost is Born.
The two ten-plus minute epics that close out The North Sea are the only weak spots of an otherwise fascinating release. Both tracks showcase Raising the Fawn's instrumental prowess, but do little to maintain listener interest. "Drownded", the last of the album's vaguely nautical tracks, is the stronger of the two. Although its most distinguishing feature is a drum and guitar break that uncannily resembles the 1970 Black Sabbath classic "Paranoid", the song's structure and orchestration provide a fitting accompaniment to its tale of loss and longing, told through the image of a ship abandoned to history and the destructive elements of surf and sand. Where "Drownded" unleashes a near-metal assault and dissolves into orchestrated noise, the album's closer "ETA" is a meandering, contemplative track that doesn't so much end the album, but unties the anchor and lets it drift over the horizon.