As a first album, Trading Twilight for Daylight feels too much like a retrospective: It has a lot to say about where it’s been, and very little about where it’s going.
Trading Twilight for Daylight is the Great Northern’s first album. It comes after two years together as a band, and that shows: The album’s sound is polished, confident, and well-thought out. It boasts half-a-dozen single-worthy songs. Unfortunately, the album is weighted towards its least interesting tracks -- songs that would have sounded derivative or overplayed in 1998. Today, they just seem unimaginative.
The Great Northern’s debut starts off with a cerebral lullaby of a song, “Our Bleeding Hearts”. Beginning with a simple piano line and a lonely xylophone, it’s graceful and academic. Drums roll in, followed by a stately string section. Lead singer Rachel Stolte’s voice -- understated, yet confident -- easily carries the song. “Our Bleeding Hearts” is distant, lonesome, and reassuring all at once. It makes the Great Northern seem like the female answer to Coldplay.
Holistically speaking, “Our Bleeding Hearts” could easily close an album. It could sit in the middle of an album of upbeat rock, an introspective digression. Or, as in Trading Twilight for Daylight, it could serve as an aperitif, the graceful beginning to a long feast of confident songs.
The first half of the album continues this trend: It’s full of long, precise, epic songs that seem equally fit to open or close an album. These songs each boast three or four good musical ideas. They’re anachronistic in tone, using chord structures and musical tropes from the last decade. The songs -- “Our Bleeding Hearts”, “Just a Dream”, “Home”, and “Telling Lies” -- seem cut from the same cloth as hit-makers Garbage, Texas, and Curve.
“Just a Dream”, for instance, revolves around an ascending bass line and a fuzzy alternarock guitar line. Strong male backing vocals from Solon Bixler supplement Stolte’s vivid strains. A basic minor-chord piano line creates a maudlin backdrop. One gets halfway through the song before realizing that none of it is particularly new. “Just a Dream” could have charted. It could easily have fit on a big-budget action movie soundtrack alongside Guns and Roses’ “Don’t Cry”.
“Home” and “Telling Lies” borrow much from the same era. By themselves, either could have been a hit. Together, they feel uninspired. Meanwhile, the next two songs -- “Low Is a Height” and “City of Sleep” -- are drawn out and sluggish. The album doesn’t truly become interesting until its seventh track, “A Sun a Sound”.
“A Sun a Sound” is also the only album track that seems to carry on the legacy of the Ship -- the studio graced by Grandaddy and Earlimart, where the members of the Great Northern came together. Both orchestral and synthesized, the song features Bixler taking on lead vocal duties. “A Sun a Sound” could have been a B-side from The Sophtware Slump, but it maintains enough of the Great Northern’s punchy footprint to be a truly novel song.
Likewise, “The Middle” is a sure surprise. It uses a formula familiar to fans of the New Pornographers: It’s composed largely of call-and-response between Bixler and Stolte. Bixler’s vocals ride a jaunty power pop line, while Stolte’s parts are measured and ethereal. A late favorite at track nine, it has a good mix-tape-ability about it.
One could make the argument that the major flaw of the Great Northern’s debut is tracking: The most exciting songs don’t appear until the album’s almost over. By that time, the listener has slogged through four epics and two sleepers. Trading Twilight for Daylight could be the beginning of an excellent career. But as a first album, it feels too much like a retrospective: It has a lot to say about where it’s been, and very little about where it’s going.