I first became aware of the story of “Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves” by way of that most distinguished of storytellers, that arbiter of literary excellence, Popeye the Sailor. One of the few early color cartoons featuring the E.C. Segar character, it fairly unfaithfully retold the One Thousand and One Nights story with the four main characters (Popeye, Olive Oyl, Wimpy and Bluto, renamed as Abu Hassan) in the Middle East. There’s no Ali Baba, but there are forty thieves and a cave filled with treasure as in the original story. Popeye deliciously changes “Open Sesame” (which he doesn’t even remember, and so has to enter the cave by using his corncob pipe as a blowtorch, don’t ya just love cartoons?) to “Open Sez Me” to get to his beloved sealed can of spinach. One doesn’t need any kind of magic words to find the treasures within the debut from the Sneaky Thieves, however. This band from Seattle doesn’t quite add up to forty personnel, but is instead made up of two sets of brothers and two friends who have put together and self-released a thoughtful and minimalist epic indie charmer called Accident(s).
The album’s opener, the ethereal “Elegy,” leads one to believe that this might be one of those stretching and yearning instrumental records that was the genre du jour once upon a post-rock time, but the second track introduces the voice of Freddy Bale, the pensive and poignant frontman for the Sneaky Thieves. Despite their roster of half of dozen (actually only the two sets of brothers recorded most of the album), and the appearance of a multitude of different sounds and instruments, the music is not some kind of multi-layered dense mess. Instead, notes and sounds are carefully chosen and only played when necessary, complementing Bale’s intimate vocals, and making the album’s title somewhat of a misnomer. These songs are not accidents; they are intricately plotted sound collages. “Old Tired Joke” is one of the standout tracks from the album, with a sense for the dramatic and a savage lyrical pen. In a way it’s like Turin Brakes or Starsailor attempting to cover the Smiths. Bale sings with understated goth-like detachment, “My father says I love you / My mother says I need you / I need you like I need a sharp stick in the eye.”
“Perfect” has an interesting music and vocal composition, featuring two female backup singers, an accordion, clarinet, various keys and a banjo. The song was written about a specific nightmare Bale had while sleeping in his dead uncle’s bedroom, and the sense of dread and an overall unsettling feeling are palpable. Whereas “Elegy” was an airy introduction to the album, “Melding (Prologue)” is its jazzy intermission, guitars and drums doing just what the title suggests with improvisational precision, if such a thing is possible. “The Discarded,” another track with female backup vocals, mostly centered around acoustic guitars and violins, shows that Sneaky Thieves have done more than their share of listening to The Bends, especially “(Nice Dream)” and “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” which might also have been the impetus for the parentheses in their own album’s title. (Lord knows I love the little buggers, I’d be a typesetter’s nightmare with all of my asides!). The banjo makes a welcome and more downhome return in “The Point is This…” while the Radiohead / Sigur Rós comparisons will once again make themselves evident in “The Forgotten.”
Accident(s) is a spectacularly mature debut for such a young band, and if I have any complaints about the album, they are minor. For one, vocalist Freddy Bale often adopts a British accent while he sings, whether unconsciously channeling his idols or consciously making an attempt at Anglicism, it can get in the way. Also, listeners might argue over the inclusion of the sounds of fingers squeaking across guitar strings. The sound is peppered throughout the album, lending to the sense of intimacy and the feel of the band being in the same live space as the listener, but at times it can be jarring. On another standout track, “Nothing, Nothing,” the squeak slides in as an almost planned yelp between sequential piano notes. It’s almost unfortunate that Accident(s) is coming out in July as it really feels like an autumn or winter record, spare and pensive. But maybe, just maybe, despite the opposite seasonal feel and the adopted British accent, Freddy Bale, as the voice of the band, is saying “I yam what I yam.”