(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Recording review - Story of the Sea, Story of the Sea (2012)

A loose retrospective reveals the band's split personality

There are two sides to every story. That may have been Story of the Sea's idea when they put together their eponymous double album this year. Not just two discs, Story of the Sea showcases two bands that seem almost unconnected. The band on disc one offers an introspective, post-rock set of instrumentals. Disc two presents a tight power pop outfit with laid back vocal attitude and crunchy guitars. Bass player John McEwan describes the album as "B-sides and extras" and the liner notes provide the provenance for each of the songs. Some of the material dates back ten years, while other tracks are new or have new parts added. This historical collection provides a sense of the Minneapolis band's style(s). Their instrumentals have stayed fairly consistent, but the second disc shows a wider spread, with the oldest tracks taking side trips into indie folk, punk, and grunge.

Of the two personalities on Story of the Sea, the post-rockers come across as stronger. The band has more of a chance to show off their chops and arrangement skills. On the shoegazer head-trip exploration, "E Major Tom", the repetitive guitar line against a droning E give the drummer room to play with syncopation. There's a gratifying dynamic balance when the song staggers from soft keyboards to ballsy guitar riffs and back.

The high point, though, is "Lumberjack". The staccato guitar and bass are quickly joined by interlocking guitar lines and reverbing ride cymbals, building a tumultuous feeling. The bass then takes charge to drive the song forward. This shift between deliberate progressive riffs and psychedelic fringes create a sense of possibilities and consideration. During a bridge-like interval, the arrangement builds excitement with a conversational approach as the instruments finish each others melodies, like twins or an old married couple. Ian Prince's drum work propels the track forward against the hypnotic jam in the other layers; he maintains the beat, but never repeats the same rhythmic pattern for two measures. I can hear the distinct influence of Trail of Dead in his playing.

The band's power pop side is interesting, but doesn't provide as many surprises. Songs like "Pine Tree" and "Better Off" are locked down into the groove, with polished arrangements. The throbbing bass and fuzzed guitars are more constrained than their post-rock alter egos, but that's what the style demands. The songs are catchy, with some nicely turned phrases. Take the philosophical "Better Off":
We chug a mug, hug a slug enough
You're every girl I know
In a moment, you'll be cellular and roaming
You went out Palamino
It's gonna chew through everything
It's gonna eat our brains
And with the static, it'll generate a force field
And love will save the day
And I'd say we're better off this way
The newest tracks, "Future Subterfuge" and "How Lucky", have the cleanest production and show the band moving towards a more open indie rock direction. "How Lucky" has emotional depth and stands out as the most personal sounding cut. The acoustic and electric guitar mesh sweetly and Adam Prince's vocal starts out lush but turns rough to reveal a beautiful sadness:
It goes on forever
This light I can't even see
But if it breaks through the atmosphere
I'll take it home for the night
You make do on not much
A mattress and empty room
But with this light and kaleidoscope
I'll make a mansion of diamonds
Yeah...How lucky we are to be
The restrained arrangement complements the poetic lyrics; every note captures the subtlety of the mood: gratitude laced with painful memories and loss.

These, then, are the stories of the sea: regret and resolution, wry observation, tumult and drive, and inner explorations. The album may be a loose collection of B-sides and extras, but it's cool to hear a less well known band put together their own retrospective.

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