The first `literary’ novel I ever bought for pleasure was a book by E. Annie Proulx called The Shipping News. The National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is the story of a thirty-six year old underachieving newspaper reporter, Quoyle, whose bilious wife is killed, leaving him with the choice of taking his daughters to his ancestral home in Newfoundland. Besides Quoyle, one of the starkest characters in the book is the landscape of Newfoundland itself, harsh and unforgiving. The coastal winds and storms roll over the coast, nearly destroying Quoyle’s home, creating a truly vivid example of the cold and difficult lifestyle Newfoundlanders face. The book is moody, yet has dark humor throughout. It is no wonder then that the three members of the Louisville, Kentucky band Shipping News took the book’s title as their moniker.
Flies the Fields is the third proper album from the trio and the follow-up to the EP compilation Three-Four which garnered rave reviews. This latest effort is also raveworthy, providing mood and atmosphere in place of pop and sheen. Shipping News is somewhat of a happy accident, a phoenix rising from the ashes of lauded indie bands June of 44, Rodan and Rachel’s. Just like Quoyle turning his life around after a life of misery and pitfalls, so the members of Shipping News took the bad circumstances of breakups and turned them into a well respected art rock band.
Opening track and first single, “Axons and Dendrites,” is a building wave of sound, at the onset a swaying almost ambient guitar song, until about 2:30 into it when the music really grows some chest hair and smacks you in the face. The lyrics are almost spoken word as opposed to singing, but in this format it’s the only thing that would really work without sounding cheesy. Shipping News reminds me of a more indie and guitar-driven Sigur Rós. Even though the band is from Kentucky, there is that Arctic feel to their music, as is found in the book from whence their name had come, and the Icelandic foursome. One can, when listening to either band, imagine tundras dotted with jagged mountains, stretching as far as the eye can see.
But that’s not all there is to Shipping News. “(Morays or) Demon” is a screaming, indicting political song, with shouts of “Goddamn!” over and over again, that rivals Steve Albini’s work in Shellac and Big Black. It helps that Shellac member Bob Weston produced the record. The newly rerecorded “Paper Lanterns” rounds out the record, with a neo-noir bassline that will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up (think Massive Attack’s “Angel”). Giovanna Cacciola of Uzeda and Bellini wrote the lyrics, but it is the darkness of Shipping News’ music that takes it to creepy Roman Polanski territory.
And, at times, in the background, recalling the book to my memory, I think I can hear the sound of the Newfoundland coastal winds, as ropes creak with strain and waves crash against the rocky shore.
Shellac- At Action Park
Sigur Rós- Ágætis Byrjun