Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Freelance Whales - Weathervanes

Sometimes I get the feeling that many people underestimate the importance of having a good band name. In the 21st century overload society a bold, funny, or just plain unusual name can be the difference between a band that goes viral or one that flounders in obscurity, especially for indie would-be breakouts. Odd and audacious band names have become a trademark of indie as a reaction to mass-marketable mainstream pop, but also, I would argue, because of the rampant saturation of the internet marketplace. Obviously a group's music is itself a differentiating factor from competitors, but with radio play out of the question, the task of grabbing a potential listener's attention can come down to the band's name, especially in word-of-mouth, grassroots marketing situations. It's literally impossible to listen to every worthwhile band these days, even with all the blogs, music videos, and internet radio services available, which is why I'm so thankful that Freelance Whales, a new, relevant, group bursting with potential, had the good judgment to choose such a memorable moniker that ultimately led me to give them a listen.

Weathervanes, Freelance Whales August 2009 debut album, is surprisingly polished and articulate for a band that's only existed since 2008. Their sound is already definite and constructed, and yet weaves together disparate elements and instruments with a flair not unlike Mr. Sufjan Stevens. You've got banjo, synth, glockenspiel, harmonium, cello, and whatever a waterphone is. Don't question the variety, though; it works. Judah Dadone's vocals are gentle and sublime and subliminal, and you get the impression that he has legitimate singing talent, not just on-record sound, which is dishearteningly rare these days.

"Generator ^ First Floor" and "Generator ^ Second Floor" are the "reference points" of the album. Both showcase the band's skill for intricate arrangements while maintaining an eclectic drive. "First Floor" sets the mood for the rest of the songs, and "Second Floor" comes second-to-last to draw the elements back together again in recapitulation. There are a few instrumental tracks interspersed between the other songs; normally I have a pretty low tolerance for that (Phoenix are an offender, as are Muse, Coldplay, The Killers, and even the sacred Neutral Milk Hotel). If an individual track cannot stand on it's own, why include it at all? But at least here there's some novelty with such diverse instrumentation and arrangement.

The reason I say this band is poised to break out is that there's a maturity present in their recording. The songs work together, there's a deliberate presence, and everything feels smooth, rounded off. On so many albums, what could be a great listening experience stutters and falls in the chasms between irrelevant songs (take Lady Gaga's The Fame, a pop standout suffocated by its single-oriented nature and lack of unifying motive). It's so, so easy to write ten songs and record an album, as opposed to writing an album and recording ten songs, especially on a first outing, especially for an independent band. That's why Freelance Whales shows promise.

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