Sea Wolf's debut full-length plays to its strengths, one of which is Alex Brown Church's ability to craft strikingly fragile songs.
Sea Wolf is an indie outfit perfectly suited to light up the blogosphere, mostly because they sound like an indie outfit. Also, up until May, when their EP, Get to the River Before it Runs Too Low, hit the shelves, not many of us knew who they were. The good news is that, unlike many bands that fall into the e-hype trap, Sea Wolf doesn't just sound like a good band when streamed off some undergrad's bandwidth, they actually are a good band. Their first full length, Leave in the River, is further evidence of that.
Essentially, Sea Wolf is an outlet for singer-songwriter Alex Brown Church, (who also plays bass for Irving). Church has said that, though he's spent most of his time in California, his music doesn't have a connection to one place. However, the sound of Leaves in the River belies that statement a little. Recorded in Seattle with Phil Ek, the album sounds distinctly northwestern. It is a damp, grey, and dreary record from beginning to end. You can feel the fog rolling in at every moment; the clouds sit above Church while he sings, threatening to rain if they aren't already.
What makes Church's claim valid is that so often the ominous feeling of late fall days is tied more to the narrators of these songs rather than their surroundings. Sure, there are the title leaves floating in the title river, the ocean always on the outskirts of the lonely lives that Church depicts. There are dingy drifts of snow, late-night rain and an ever-present darkness. But all these details seem handpicked by the narrator, more as road flares illuminating the ditches that these people are brooding in than the stuff that makes up the road itself. In "The Cold, the Dark, & the Silence", over an appropriately antiseptic drum loop, Church sings "When the cold, the dark, and the silence come, it's like a sudden rush of water through your heart and lungs". This comes late in the a record full of imagery that sets up water as a constant presence that can sometimes push you to deadening numbness and, at its highest tides, shocking loneliness.
Along with the solitary narratives that run through Leaves in the River comes equally spare instrumentation. An unassuming rhythm section backs Church and his simple guitar. A cello that adds to an ominous tone as much as it can provide a beautiful lilt is often present. In "Middle Distance Runner" the strings provide comfort to Church's narrator who knows he can't commit to a woman, and wants to just pretend that its okay for a night. On other tracks, when Church lets a little anger slip into his narrators' self-loathing, the instrumentation seems to side with them. A jangly, shrill guitar riff picks along while Church sings "Black dirt will stain your feet, and when you walk, you'll leave black dirt in the street". It's rare in these songs for the narrator to put that sort of burden on others, but here it is just sinister enough to be at least partially honest. The shift is a welcome one in an album so full of brooding.
What gets in the way of this record's complete success is exactly what makes it so popular with the bloggers. Lumped together on one album, these songs get to be too self pitying for their own good. Mostly, Church is good at avoiding overt romanticism in all the bourbon and near-tears. But when, in "Winter Windows", he sings "This is the world, this is the world we live in, it's not the one we chose but it's the one we're given," it becomes problematic. The narrator is shirking the responsibility for his sad-sack state in a liquor-induced fit of self-pity. Whether Church is condemning this character or letting him off the hook is unclear, and the sentiment of this song, the second on the record, bleeds through the rest of Leaves in the River.
Most of the songs are good enough on their own to sidestep that pitfall, but "Song for the Dead", with its sing-song chorus, is too contrived to stand on its own (Church awkwardly rhymes "thicket" with "cricket"), and ends up being the worst track. That "You're a Wolf", which also appeared on the EP, is the best track on the album is unfortunate, but songs like "Black Leaf Falls" and closer "Neutral Ground" come awfully close to matching the band's default anthem. The opening title track would be a serious contender too, if it weren't hamstrung by dull atmospherics that seek to set a mood that the songs themselves can provide more organically.
There will be those that laud Leaves in the River as the coming of the next great heartbreak band. And while they're probably giving Sea Wolf a bit too much credit, those who dismiss this record as too simple are missing the little things that make this record, and Sea Wolf as a band, very solid.