Portland, Oregon is home to Small Sails, a trio which uses a mixture of organic and electronic sounds to create music that falls somewhere between post-rock, indie-pop, and electronica. On Similar Anniversaries, they incorporate elements of real and programmed drums, keyboards, vibraphone, guitars, and voice to create a warm and comforting sound world. It’s apparent that they have a specific vision for their music, as it rarely strays from this well-defined sonic bubble. This focus has enabled them to generate a cohesive record which feels very personal, yet also somewhat distant. There is also a gleam of magic and mystery to their music, a quality which hints at something more substantial beneath the surface of these pristine-sounding recordings, and it’s easy to see why this album will be loved by those who enjoy similarly immersive music made by folks such as Múm, Mice Parade, Fridge, and Sigur Ros.
Don’t get me wrong, Small Sails clearly have their own sound, but there are definitely some key similarities to the artists listed above. Their music often seems hushed, even while it moves forward with robotic precision. Multi-layered rhythms are played and programmed in a way that is simple, yet effective in carrying the pieces along through various dynamic and melodic changes. The song structures themselves expand and contract at various times to allow certain elements to come forward into the spotlight, and the arrangements work well despite their somewhat limited textural palette. Guitarist/singer Ethan Rose (who also makes some great ambient electronic work under his own name) rarely sings actual words, opting instead for wordless melodies, which seem to swim around inside some kind of liquid ether, adorning the other instruments with a layer of abstraction. His vocal style isn’t nearly as dramatic as the soaring falsetto of Jón Thor Birgisson of Sigur Rós or as elfin as the breathy delivery of Kristín Anna Valtysdóttir of Múm, though listeners might hear similarities to both at various points. Instead of being the focus of the tracks, his voice works effectively to simply add a gentle, human layer to the combined melodic content.
Certain songs stand out from the pack, and although the album is sequenced well and flows excellently from track to track, the first half seems to have more impact initially. On the leadoff track, “Somnambulist,” cyclical machine rhythms and a repetitive acoustic guitar part serve as the backdrop for a number of other layers, including spacy keyboards, electric guitar, drumkit and hand drums. These sounds are woven into and out of the mix throughout, creating a shifting tapestry of melodies and rhythms, which feel natural and inviting. “Aftershocks and Afterthoughts” is a punchy keyboard-driven anthem with occasional pauses for quick vocal interludes, and the whole track builds to an epic swirling chorus at the end, bringing all the sonic elements together at once for a final climactic moment. “Corners” is another standout track with traces of Mice Parade’s multi-layered percussion grooves, melodic vibraphone and keyboard lines, all anchored by a simple acoustic guitar figure. Another nice moment is “Earthbound with Parents,” a mid-tempo tune with vocals reminiscent of the more subdued, prettier side of Animal Collective. Its lovely ambient outro segues effortlessly into the next track, a blissful Morr Music-esque downtempo number entitled “This Flimsy Traveling Machine.”
It’s somewhat surprising that Small Sails achieve so much using such simple elements, and I wonder what they might have accomplished if they had really endeavored to incorporate a much wider spectrum of influences and textures into their work. Overall, Similar Anniversaries is a nicely crafted cocoon of an album, something one can wrap oneself inside in order to enter into a musically induced comfort zone. Something about their music gives it an innocent and childlike quality, emanating a sense of wonder while also generating feelings of security and contentedness. Perhaps their music is meant to be a soundtrack to time spent inside the womb in our life before birth, or an attempt to take us back to a simpler era in our lives, the one we enjoyed before we were pulled into the complexity of the world in these post-modern times… No matter what their intentions were in this regard, Small Sails have crafted a subtle and nuanced album of music for the inner child in each of us, one which celebrates life and captures the beauty of the human spirit in its purest form.
Mice Parade – Obrigado Saudade
Múm – Finally We Are No One
Fridge – Happiness