Somewhere there is a girl who primarily wears knit clothes and has colorful barrettes in her asymmetrical haircut. She spends a lot of time baking cupcakes, while wistfully imagining that she lives in Brooklyn. Freelance Whales makes music for her. A group of buskers who decided to hunker down and start a real band in 2008, Freelance Whales’ debut album Weathervanes is a frontloaded collection of peppy yet precious songs that blend the banjo and the drum machine fairly seamlessly. The Sufjan-meets-Postal Service result is tuneful and inoffensive. Like that girl in her leg warmers spreading frosting, they’re not exactly cutting edge, and easy to dismiss, but there is also something inherently likeable about their thrift store style and unabashed sincerity.
Hailing from Queens, a borough adjacent to the Hipster Capitol of the World, Freelance Whales claims the fanciful origin story of five musicians coming together, picking up the glockenspiels and synthesizers that were lying around, and writing. But the songs’ tricky melodies and lush instrumentation speak to much harder work than that. One standout, “Broken Horse,” slowly grows from a Fevers and Mirrors-era Bright Eyes style acoustic plucker, into the kind of quietly powerful choir piece you’re used to hearing sung by the Illinoisemakers.
The band all share instrument duties, and none of the four male members claims his lead singing. Whoever is manning the mic has a fragile voice that inches toward falsetto on many tracks, sounding like Ben Gibbard’s wimpier kid brother. It’s an airy, dreamy voice that adds those qualities to the music. It also adds humor-intentional or not-to lines like “Do me this solid if you would pretty lady / Please grab your martini and meet me on the balcony” and “Please don’t play the matchmaker / Please don’t be a player hater.”
Both of those lyrics are from “Hannah,” a song that references the mumblecore film Hannah Takes the Stairs. Subtle as it may be, the name check has the slightest air of affectation-the Queens band proving it belongs among the Brooklynites. All of Weathervanes is dusted with just such a hint of construction that keeps it merely good, instead of great. From the bands proclaimed rag tag back-story, to its use of oddball instruments, it all just feels a bit too planned.
In a way, this handicap is also part of the group’s charm. They’re the person going to all the right movies and wearing all the right clothes, but wants too openly to be liked to be considered cool. They also have a puppy love adorableness to them, which while endearing, can at times border on cloying, such as on the trippy song “We Could be Friends,” the lyrics to which repeat the title over and over.
But while that song’s lyrics might be grating, the tune is catchy. Hooks are what bolster Weathervanes and are no doubt at the root of the buzz the band has generated. Other songs, like “Hannah” and album opener “Generator ^ First Floor” can and will get stuck in your head for days. For my money, Freelance Whales really hit their stride-and hint at their potential-on Weathervanes‘ third track, “Location.” With a pulsing beat that, granted, may owe a bit too much to the Postal Service, the song relies mostly on its rhythm, guitar and melody, with only flourishes of all the arcane instruments the band loves to love. Sometimes when groups break out the harmoniums and waterphones in attempt to create a new sound, the result can feel gimmicky; different for different’s sake. On “Location,” Freelance Whales use a glockenspiel because the song actually calls for it, and the authenticity is palpable.
Not for nothing, “Location” also has some of the band’s best lyrical work, with earnest lines like: “I am floating up the stairwell / With my toes gracing the cedar / Thinking softly what a tinder box we live in / And what a flammable heart I’ve been given.” While “Broken Horse” and “Location” find strength in their plodding melody, Freelance Whales are generally at their best when the synthesized backbeat is whizzing along at a quick pace. The second half of Weathervanes is mostly full of slower, more thoughtful songs that end up sounding more sleepy than introspective. The album probably should have had 10 songs instead of 13. Rookie mistake.
Though certainly not a provocative or dangerous band, Freelance Whales are marked by a distinct lack of cynicism that makes for a bright listening experience. The group seems to ultimately make music because they enjoy it, and that’s never a bad thing. One shouldn’t bake cupcakes because they were all the rage in a few specific zip codes five years ago. Cupcakes are reward enough in themselves.