At the close of spring, not too far from the onset of one of our mildest summers (at least in Seattle), a rare treat of an EP was released by a former member of the psychedelic pop band, Irving. Alex Church, taking the name Sea Wolf, needed an outlet for music that didn’t quite fit into Irving’s pop milieu, and so created his alter-identity, named after a novel by Jack London. However, the name more fully followed a cue from the submarine that takes its name. Church’s music crept up on us stealthily, beneath the waves, and surprised with a barrage of great songs and a `Crazy Ivan’ turn from the type of music we were used to expecting. “You’re a Wolf” was easily one of the most enjoyable songs of the summer, but now, with his full-length debut, Sea Wolf immerses us in the sounds of fall, as we creep up to the bank to watch and listen to Leaves in the River.
“You’re a Wolf” is the only song repeated from the EP to the album, which I usually applaud, but in this case, is somewhat disappointing as those tracks were exquisite. Leaves beings at a crawl, the sound of rain atmospherically backing the title track. Church’s voice is immediately engaging, with the first few songs sounding like Bright Eyes without the `I’m about to have a nervous breakdown’ manic vocal shaking of Conor Oberst. There’s also a sense, toward the close of the song, of a Shins tune with the smooth vocal cooing. “Winter Windows” charms with its incredibly charming chorus, nicely juxtaposed with Mediterranean flavored verses. “Black Dirt” is one of the first stunners, for those like me, waiting for a song close to “You’re a Wolf” in its dramatic feel. “Black Dirt” and a few other tracks on the album make me think of a mellower Modest Mouse, with angular guitar bending replaced with acoustics and Isaac Brock’s manic yelping replaced with Church’s calm tones. But maybe that’s just the influence of producer Phil Ek.
Three of the strongest tracks act as the centerpiece of the album in “The Rose Captain,” “Middle Distance Runner” and the aforementioned “You’re a Wolf.” “The Rose Captain” is one of the prettiest romantic ballads to be released in a long while, with gorgeous instrumentation, such as a weepy string section. “The Middle Distance Runner” steadily plods along until another gorgeous chorus, this time sounding like a Simon & Garfunkel classic. Then comes the arching cellos of “You’re a Wolf,” and we remember what a great song this truly is. This particular song could have the same cultural impact as “New Slang” if given enough exposure, and so far it’s on the right track.
“Song for the Dead” sets Church alongside some of this decade’s most engaging singer / songwriters including early Pete Yorn, Zach Condon (a.k.a. Beirut) and Patrick Park, and I thought this before I realized Patrick Park played on the album! The song also seems to contain somewhat of a touch of Ian McCulloch circa “Killing Moon,” once again showing Church’s unique ability to combine new folk with new wave as he did on the EP with the New Order tinged “Sea Monuments.” “The Cold, the Dark & the Silence” is another standout track, taking a cue from the simple, yet driving rhythms and melodies of “You’re a Wolf,” but this time with one of those catchy and engaging choruses. “Neutral Ground” is the closing lullaby of a song, like one of the slower and more melodic songs from either Rogue Wave or Matt Pond PA. And yet again, Church bowls us over with one of the sweetest choruses ever written. The strings swell and our hearts swell with them.
While every song on Leaves in the River may not be as kinetically engaging as “You’re a Wolf,” the album is certainly a winner. Repeated listens manage to coax the recipient into paroxysms of joy, and you certainly won’t be able to rid your head of these magnificently infectious tunes. Church’s voice is something to behold, shedding any kind of pretension, merely letting it float along the gorgeous music he creates, without any kind of yelp (Isaac Brock), falsetto shouts (James Mercer), vocal spasm (Conor Oberst) or any other distracting affectation. Leaves in the River is immediately entertaining, as well as being a grower. The more you listen, the more you’ll hear, and what there is to hear is treasure to behold.