The first time I heard the infamous “lo-fi” tag attached to a style of music, I was a little perplexed to say the least. I suppose it stemmed from my inability to define exactly what “lo-fi” really even meant. Was it the hazy singing, the simple percussion and straightforward chord changes? Or was it something having to do with the fact that much of it had the effect of sounding like it was recorded in someone’s basement? I guessed it was a combination of all these elements, and the inevitability of certain musical elitists too eager to coin a new music genre. If I had to call it anything, I’d settle for “basement rock.” Seattle’s Helvetia have been busy crafting just such an album, The Clever North Wind, the perfect soundtrack for rain-soaked afternoons spent idly in the darker corners of your home.
Comprised of San Jose transplants and Duster bandmates Jason Albertini and Canan Amber, and with the help of Adam Howrey (Vells, Fruit Bats), Helvetia maintains the sleepy, recorded-live aesthetic you’ve come to expect from a band dubbed “lo-fi.” Guitars rush in and out like the tide as gauzy vocals prod you with cryptic and mostly indecipherable lyrics. Unusual time signatures will keep you on your toes while an everpresent background buzz will make you think you’re listening to a live recording. Like Yo La Tengo without the tenure or The Sea and Cake on valium, Helvetia emerge from the basement with their laid-back debut of downtempo tunes.
“Songs of The Ancient” kicks things off with a menacing church-organ drone and rampant drum beat. When Albertini’s vocals surface from the depths, they warn of mortality and urban decay: “All around these ghosts are out roaming/ Awaiting inevitable conclusions/…Don’t believe your television.” A minor guitar freak-out and tambourine rustle conclude what will be the album’s only true rock-out. From here on, it’s fuzzy and subdued all the way.
A death-march drumbeat and surgically precise bassline give “Dead Hands” a morbidity only matched by Albertini’s echoing croon and sea-drenched reverb. The extended instrumental intro of “Gladness” and the cacophonous cymbal crashing and atmospheric vocals of “Dusty Rue” recall the more lavish moments from Broken Social Scene’s You Forgot It In People, but never really soar to the same thrilling crescendos. On the tracks “Voltaire” and “Helvetia,” the album plods when the songs become mired in the sludge of monotonous progressions. The eerily bright distortion and keyboard culling of “The Drowning End” marks a return to form as the album closes.
The Clever North Wind floats with the best when it rides the waves of lo-fi indulgence to somber shores. And while Helvetia may elicit premature yawns on a few tracks, the more rousing numbers keep them adrift with their basement rocking peers.
The Sea And Cake – The Fawn
Guided By Voices – Bee Thousand
Broken Social Scene – You Forgot It In People