Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Album of the Week: Unsparing Sea's "In the Diamond Caverns"

In 2007, I had two favorite albums, The Besnard Lakes Are the Dark Horse by The Besnard Lakes and Unsparing Sea’s A Cloud in the Cathedral. Try as I might, I couldn’t decide which I loved more, despite the fact that I was unusually committed to breaking the tie. Or, at least, having it broken for me. Over the course of this quest, I remember bending the ear one night of my neighborhood record store owner, going on about the two bands, and wistfully looking forward to the moment when they both came through town. He looked at me like I was a fool, of course, and said something along the lines of, “Well, I don’t know about The Besnard Lakes, but Unsparing Sea plays here all the time. They live here, dude.”

And with that, I learned that one of my favorite bands lived in my hometown and that I’d found them not because of that connection, but despite it. Since then, I’ve devoured their offerings greedily, whether it be the occasional live set, e-mail missive to supporters, and facebook fan page update. And you can believe I was primed for the release of their EP this past summer, In the Crystal Canyon, and even more so for their recent full-length release, In the Diamond Caverns.

I was not disappointed.

Although much of the album continues down the same path as the first album, staying in the genre I call “antique rock” (think Midlake or The Decemberists, maybe even Nick Cave), the band has moved away from the heavy nautical vibe of their debut album and into a more earthy and ethereal paradigm. They’ve also waded into heaver territories (though no one could say A Cloud in the Cathedral dealt with superficial considerations), with recurring themes that include religion, war, dishonesty, and violence. Between these big and serious ideas and the band’s well-executed penchant for non-traditional instruments that bear a distinct old-world gravitas, In the Diamond Caverns quickly announces itself as a record to be reckoned with and does not shirk from that approach throughout its forty-seven minutes.

The album begins sedately, all xylophone and chimes, before frontman J.R. Bennett gently layers his vocals on top of the cloud-like instrumentals. Bennett’s best work is when he’s presenting vivid imagery, and the effort in “The Flame Sparks High” provides the listener with an excellent précis for the album as a whole. Moreover, it works as a stand-alone track, kicking in with a Victorian gusto as Bennett carefully howls “There is movement here…”

The tempo and aura equally intensify dramatically in the album’s second song, “Diamond Caverns,” due as much to the driving percussion work of Ryan Kelly as to the luxurious cello provided by Tara Klein. Klein’s cello is integral to the Unsparing Sea sound, as essential as Bennett’s vocals and songwriting. Both Kelly and guitarist Molnar are proficient at their instruments, but the Bennett-Klein dynamic is what makes the overall performance exciting and unusual. The third leg to the Unsparing Sea triangle, connecting Klein’s cello and Bennett’s vocals, is the band’s aforementioned employment of alternative instruments, from a saw and a glockenspiel to a Spanish-style trumpet on the near-Dylanesque “Sing Devil Sing” and an upright bass on “Sleight of Hand” and an accordian on “Of Empire.” Similarly, my listening notes on track after track have me trying to determine what exactly is being played at a certain moments. Is that a practice pad being banged upon in “Only Armor” or a theremin on “Held In Light?”

The overall effect reminds me of a fuller version of an indie rock string quartet I fell in love with during my Texas days, in that both approaches succeeded because they were trying to use non-rock instruments to make serious rock music, rather than making traditional rock a bit more pretentious with weirdo shit. When trying to break this kind of ground, intentionality matters, and Unsparing Sea comes from a place so obviously sincere and humble that the instinctive knocks that are given to other indie bands that try to do something different and smart, even sophisticated, can’t be lobbed to besmirch this effort, one that is as unassailable as an aggregate album as it is on the individual tracks that comprise it.

For example, “Of Empire” is one of a handful of notable swoons, a song you can’t help but say a quiet “Nice” out loud as the accordion outro concludes, while “Held In Light” (like the previously noted “Sing Devil Sing”) is one of a handful that make you think Bennett did his coursework on His Bobness as a young songwriter. Like Dylan, Bennett bears a touch of the poet, evident at so many points I don’t really know where to set the limit on quotations. Between his mastery of the written word and his skills as an arranger, Bennett could be the Thom Yorke of the Middle Ages as nearly every song on the record provide brief and murky glimpses into different worlds, each existing in some ancient life, all presumably some shade of gray between Hobbes’s state of nature and Enlightenment-era Europe. Each leaves you feeling as if you just witnessed more than a sonic artifact, but that you were in a specific historical setting, whether a warm tavern on a wintry night with pails of grog and whisky to consume (”Held In Light”) or some haunted yard (”Wolves at a Wedding”) where we should be hearing a song about remorse, but we aren’t.

The trio of songs that conclude In the Diamond Caverns each find the band taking slightly different tacks, possible foreshadowing of the path the next Unsparing Sea record may follow, one hopes. “Here, Here” takes its time getting to its grit, ending with a patient and worthwhile jam, while “Fires, Attics, Etc.” might be the most schizophrenic yet brilliant track on the album, melding its most upbeat moments (whispers of Brian Wilson and Daniel Smith) with the record’s most coherent attack on the socio-political zeitgeist that ails us. The track’s abrupt percussive ending is apropos, both for the song itself and so that the album finale, “All I Want,” gets its own fresh start. A fresh start makes a great deal of sense for this mildly psychadelic closer, as the messy background acoustic guitars and choral whoo-whoos that can’t really be found elsewhere on the record effectively serve as a palette cleanser. As the calm, poignant end of the album lingers, you might think about the apparent oddness of putting a palette cleanser at the end of a meal (or record), rather than the middle, but I think Bennett and company know precisely what they are doing. They brought us a album that we need to think about, and by sending us away with a lightened spirit after traveling with them down a much longer and darker road, we can do just that.

Unsparing Sea’s In the Diamond Caverns was released November 24th on Broke Tusk Collective. You can buy it at local record stores or, better yet, from the Unsparing Folks themselves when they play with Bears, The Modern Electric, and a bunch of other great bands at the December Cleveland Bachelor Show of the Month next Wednesday at the Beachland!

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