It’s easy to be ambivalent toward Shipping News. The Louisville, Kentucky threesome (plus friends) have a decidedly math- (or post-, or noodle-, or wank-, take your pick) rock pedigree, which could be alienating to say the least. But, um, whatever. What might we discover if we left our prejudices at the door and honestly attempted to view this latest offering as context-free music, without the distorting lens of shadow-throwing predecessors Slint (or even, for that matter, Shipping News’ direct antecedents Rodan, June of 44, and Rachels)? Well, let’s find out, shall we?
First, the factoids: Three-Four collects the songs from all three RMSN Series EPs (Carrier, Sickening Bridge, and Variegated), mixes up the order, and adds three new songs. From a fan’s perspective, despite it not being a genuine shiny-new Shipping News album, this release nonetheless makes a certain amount of sense, since the original Series was limited to only 1,000 copies, and the EPs have now gone out of print. And not only are the songs remastered and re-sequenced here, but (for the curious) there are those three new songs tacked to the end, too.
Now, the premise: off the bat, this is not easy music, or even easy music to like. It can be discordant, and dense, and jagged, and “clever” in an annoying way. It can be profundity-promised but surface bland. It can be just plain odd. And to be honest, downing all 68 minutes and 53 seconds of Three-Four in one big gulp would likely be harsh and unpleasant for most listeners. Not everything works here; the original conceit of each band member (Jeff Mueller, guitar, vocals; Jason Noble, bass, vocals; and Kyle Crabtree, drums) writing and recording (and playing all instruments on) their respective songs was a bold one, but it occasionally left blurry impressionistic versions of songs which might otherwise have truly soared.
Finally, the soundbites: what we have here are less “songs” than “moments”; emotive moments, in which barely-articulated yet complex feelings are hinted at, occasionally caught in a mesh of sound, only to flap pitifully before disintegrating like insects at dusk. The opener, “Sickening Bridge Versus Horrible Bed”, demonstrates this perfectly. Initially, a deceptively safe acoustic guitar strum is overlaid with vaguely nonchalant, unremarkable vocals in a near alt-country parody — “why do you think things will change now that you’re free?” — until simple truncated slide guitar bleats imperceptibly gain an uneasy urgency, and are echoed by a disquieting series of heartsick moans (“oh, oh, oh . . .”) before everything fades out. The effect is subtly disturbing. More harrowing yet is “…Diamond Lined Star…” — a kind of distant bastard cousin to “Sickening Bridge…” — which sounds like a brutal crime taking place in real time “right before our [helpless] eyes.” A strummed guitar over a funereal tempo builds slowly, never reaching its implied climax. As in a nightmare, this ill-defined emergency cannot be addressed, and the creepy understated moaning vocals lend a greater sense of fear and foreboding than histrionics ever could. At the end, the repetition of “your bones” and “choke hold” is blood-freezingly chilling.
But I don’t want to imply this is nothing but dank slowcore atmospherics. There are songs here that rock, too. Although its overall feel remains dark, “Haymaker” nevertheless churns out a blocky, scratchy mélange of harmonic/atonal guitar contrasts and off-kilter drumming that is most definitely at the rock end of jazz-rock. Perhaps it is simply associations triggered by the title, but this hefty instrumental has a sense of those complex feelings I mentioned earlier; in this case, suggestive of a kind of bewildered defensive indiscriminate lashing out. And the surprising “Cock-a-doodle-do”, with its ominous mid-tempo drum lurch alongside resonant elastic bass and subtle spare delayed guitar, suddenly morphs from a kind of fucked-up drug-sick Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross” into a ringing guitar segment that dares your heart to soar for a moment. Is it a false promise? Will the room (or the world) really stop spinning? We never get to find out, as the song collapses into a babble of radio static and a strange sentimental answering machine message that feels less like crowing and chest beating than like somebody’s desperate craving for the heartbeat of human connection.
The vocals are not the Shipping News’ strength. They are generally muted and low in the mix, and the sung melodies are often flat and featureless as a midwestern plain. Even when Chris Higdon of the band Elliott lends guest singing to “We Start to Drift”, the emotion is conveyed more by the instruments. However, when the voice does discover sporadic peaks and valleys, they seem to take on a greater significance. Math-rocky tendencies threaten to swamp this song until the repeated “a setting winter sun” over relentless bass and drums suddenly ambushes you and, with its abrupt sadness, clutches at your heart. A lengthy and speculatively ambient coda adds to the sense that, however sorrowful, the song has been rescued from the brink of a murky kind of disaster.
Other honourable mentions: “Variegated” begins with an almost Thom Yorke-like falsetto moan over picked acoustic guitar, promising something sweet but then slowly merging — panicky, paranoid — into atonal shrieks and neo-industrial dissonance, sounding now like hulking monstrous things are stirring somewhere close by and weighing up warlike options. Torn, staticky, short-wave scraps flutter from the ragged end of the song, the cacophony of our times. And “Non-Volant” tries to reconcile its mournful repetitive vocals with an odd time signature that somehow makes your skin crawl, it’s so damn lonely a sound. The mad funhouse screech of alley-cat viola strings near the end sounds like the Cure’s “Caterpillar Girl” with all the whimsy replaced by discordant (barely subdued) rage. The four-note keyboard refrain is inexplicably horrifying.
Of the three new songs, “The Architect in Hell” begins like a “normal” rock song (ha, you know what’s coming now, don’t you?), propelling itself along with punchy momentum and disquieting lyrics until, midway through, an erupting guitar shreds everything within range like a sonic cluster bomb. And “Wax Museum” begins pugnaciously, with strutting effects-laden guitars and madcap drumming, and ends up strangely pretty in a jagged, hypervigilant kind of way. The final song, “Everglades” is a disappointment; that by-now familiar slow deep elastic bass/drum synchronized pseudo-jazz rock, with a flurry of clashing, crashing cymbals, seems rudderless and alone at the end, with nothing extra to distinguish it.
Three-Four is a hunted record. There is something predatory and dreadful stirring somewhere beyond the margins. This ain’t candy, it’s more like tough meat; in fact, there’s a significant amount of tough gristle, and consequently isn’t for everybody. On the other hand, flirting dangerously with the overly cerebral, the Shipping News somehow manage to isolate (at least a part of) the traumatized heart of enough of these songs to make this collection worthwhile.