Upon the release of his debut, Flashlight Seasons, Gravenhurst’s Nick Talbot garnered a gaggle of comparisons to another famous Nick. His gloomy Brit-folk was so intricate and lovely, yet morose and foggy, that the Drake parallels were inevitable. A longish EP titled Black Holes in Sand followed, continuing in similar pastoral hillside folk fashion, though with a few unlikely surprises, mainly the appearance of a Husker Du song. That may have been some kind of indication as to what was to come, but it’s no stretch to say that very little warning was given as to the change that Talbot and Gravenhurst would undergo.
Gravenhurst’s sophomore full-length, Fires in Distant Buildings almost sounds like the work of an entirely different band. Acoustic guitars have been replaced with electric. Breezy brushed drums have been put aside in favor of Krautrock grooves. And the album is anything but “folk.” But let’s examine Gravenhurst a little more closely, now. Talbot never really did play “folk.” He just happened to be playing British rock at slower paces and lower volumes. But it seems that he’s no longer satisfied with his subdued approach. Gravenhurst, at least part of the time, actually seems to (gasp!) rock out.
Talbot doesn’t exactly rock out at first, however. “Down the River” is a seven-minute, droning dream pop dirge that floats more than rocks, though it does sound decidedly more “rock,” for what it’s worth, than anything on Flashlight Seasons. It’s not actually until track two, “The Velvet Cell,” in which the volume is turned up and the pace quickens. Owing more to bands like Joy Division than Nick Drake, the song seems to fit in with gloom-popsters like Interpol and Editors, which isn’t such a bad thing, really. Still, Talbot’s choirboy tenor comes off as idiosyncratic in a more abrasive setting, singing lines like “to understand the killer/I must become the killer.” It may be a little silly, but let us not forget “her stories are boring and stuff/she’s always calling my bluff” from a record that at least one well-known webzine called album of the year earlier in the decade.
There are still plenty of moments that recall the Gravenhurst of old. “Nicole” returns to a subdued acoustic sound, while “Animals” sounds like a slightly louder, better produced counterpart. And “Cities Beneath the Sea” sounds more like a sinister Badly Drawn Boy, coupling a jaunty melody with lines like “I want to destroy everything.” And the two lengthy tunes at the record’s close, “Songs from Under the Arches” and “See My Friends,” offer an epic, expansive conclusion to this more eclectic, yet still haunting collection. The former finds a balance between quieter verses and an altogether chaotic noise-fest breakdown, while the latter takes cues from Can, swirling into a meditative groove jam.
Maybe Gravenhurst got a little louder. Maybe Talbot did decide to plug in and take it up a notch. But if you’re really paying attention, it won’t seem drastically different than before. Talbot leaves an indelible mark as a songwriter, and his prints are all over these songs. While on the surface a lot has changed, it’s comforting to know that Fires in Distant Buildings actually retains some familiarity in the long run.
Songs: Ohia – Didn’t It Rain
Low – The Great Destroyer
Bedhead – Transaction de Novo
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.