One of the more polarizing efforts released this year, Seachange's debut album initially sounds like a retread of some of the louder names in '90s alternative rock (especially Sonic Youth and New Adventures in Hi-Fi-era R.E.M.), but only because the band have obscured their true identity, as adventurous torch-carriers attempting to express last decade's raw indie sound in passionate new ways, similar to ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead.
The major reason for the polarization is intrinsic to the band's sound, as typified by the opening track "Anglokana". For the first three minutes, the song offers something akin to macabre, melancholic folk. Frontman Dan Eastop presents, in his plain but attractive voice, a River's Edge-like tale of a drunk young lover pointlessly killing his girlfriend, while Johanna Woodnutt's omnipresent violin quietly winds its way around a gently strummed guitar until it becomes the central focus, like a snake about to strike. The band suddenly unleashes brashly, with lacerating guitars and Eastop's rapid-fire speak-sing delivery, detailing the outside world's reaction to the murder, or rather its misrepresentation by the media that doesn't care to understand the emotions involved in such a relationship. These two sides of the band, the black and the white, blend quite well over the remaining course of the record; yet as captivating as various shades of gray can be, from a distance, they still compose a colorless wash. The band's energy, intensity, and dynamism, as well as a collection of distinct songs, still do not prevent the record from sounding subdued and monochromatic.
While the lack of color on Lay of the Land appears to be an aesthetic decision in the production (by the band with Mark Spivey) rather than a failing on the band's part, Seachange have yet to prove they can deliver vibrancy, even though several of the album's tracks make a strong case for it. "Glitterball" is an alluring stunner. Anchored by the fine drumming of Simon Aldcroft, and carried by the blanket-of-guitars-with-violin combination that defines the band, Eastop's vocals convey a drama merely hinted at before, especially in the refrain of "She lost her nerve / For a '60s moment". "Superfuck" is an Oasis-like burst of energetic Brit-rock, given a garage flavor courtesy of its screaming chorus and reverb-dabbling vocal track, while the brief "Forty Nights" is even faster and louder, buried underneath a thick layer of Psychocandy's feedback. The centerpiece of the album is also its best track, "Do It All Again". Though Woodnutt's violin is either absent or undetectable through much of the song (and when it does appear, it feels somewhat forced), it is a tour de force for the other five members of the band. Featuring an anomalous keyboard at the beginning, it is also the album's least characteristic track, posing a threat to the band's sense of identity. In fact, Lay of the Land demonstrates such a vast array of styles in its songwriting with equal strength that it renders incoherence, lending credence to the probability that the shades-of-gray approach to the album's sound is an attempt to unify its opposing ideas.
Walking the line between the band's harder edge and the melancholy areas it should visit more often, "News from Nowhere", a constant frenzy of sad energy, is a better representative of what Seachange are about. The slow-burning epic "Come on Sister" attempts to do the same thing, but beyond the enigmatic verse about dead witches and finding spells to keep love alive, it resorts to using dynamics to veil an anemic melody. The bottom line is that Lay of the Land, although a great debut, finds the band working through varying material that was most likely written over a long period of time. For their next record, Seachange will be forced to work from a more concentrated burst of creativity, refining their sound and allowing the songs to develop common threads without deliberately stripping them of color, crippling their identity.