“My favorite songs are all slow. The quick ones are over too soon.”
The history of music is littered with deceiving images, teaching us that one cannot always believe what one sees. Until the age of video, and Rickrolling, blue-eyed soul had duped many a listener into believing the vocalists to be black. All the way up to Hall & Oates’ “Sara Smile” and maybe even beyond, people had been making all kinds of assumptions of how singers looked based on their voices. The same `deceptions’ persist in a number of other areas. Twenty years ago, would anyone have predicted that the big hit for Sub Pop in 2008 would have been a Seattle-based Southern-sounding folk band? Or that four Columbia University students would use African influences to woo the indie elite? And now we have another bumfuzzler. How did seven San Franciscans, naming themselves after the subtitle to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, get to become whiskey-soaked, backwoods, hillfolk?
Just so you’re not waiting out this review in suspense, I’ll admit that I have no earthly idea how it happened. But, suffice it to say, it did. Everything about Or, the Whale seems perfect. In fact, it seems too good to be true. Back porch tinny banjo playing, the forlorn twang of the pedal steel, a bass that at times sounds a replacement for a jug, the gorgeous harmonizing voices of two comely lasses backing up a raspy voiced lead vocalist, accordions, harmoniums and even a saw! Should people not actually listen to the album, they might think it akin to a salsa made in New York City, but they’d be off the mark. The sound of Or, the Whale is about as authentic as it can get. Yet, if there’s one thing that could detract from the authenticity, it’s that they maybe try too hard to get the point across, dropping in numerous references to whiskey, Southern gothic imagery and other trappings of the genre. But, that’s a very small complaint.
Or, the Whale mix it up by practically trading speeds with every other song. Their upbeat foot stompers recall Southern bars where the stage is fenced in with chicken wire. Images of the Blues Brothers passing as the `Good Old Boys’ or Lurleen Lumpkin immediately come to mind. And speaking of the latter, the magic of Or, the Whale lies in their slower numbers. The quotation listed above is from the track “Crack a Smile,” and it makes sense considering their slower songs have gotten the most care. When Or, the Whale stretches it out and decelerates, one can languish in the wistful vocals and lonely wandering pedal steel. “Rope Don’t Break,” featuring one of the two females on lead vocals instead of the usual male is appropriately melancholic, is one of those standout languorous tracks. The other places Or, the Whale succeeds are on tracks that don’t seem to pretend they’re from the South. “Saint Bernard,” for one, says “There’s no snowin’ way out west / The air don’t freeze in your chest” while “Fixin’ to Leave” finds our twangy new heroes mourning the gray skies of their hometown.
The album art of Light Poles and Pines exemplifies the dichotomy of this band, and their awareness of it. On the front cover is a stereotypical old rural red barn on a hill with a windmill, and the title pines close by. On the back cover, atop a mirror image of the same hill, are the stereotypical Victorian row houses of San Francisco, exemplifying that this band is really two sides of the same coin, loyal to both. This self-awareness will get them pretty far. Oh, and the music’s pretty damn good too.
The Mendoza Line- Fortune
Whiskeytown- Strangers Almanac
Old 97’s- Fight Songs