Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Wilderness of Manitoba: When You Left the Fire

There's something about bands with Canadian provinces in their names.

I've written about my love for The Rural Alberta Advantage, who this year released an outstanding second album and put on one of the best live shows I've seen in a while. A few weeks ago I was browsing my recommended artists and noticed a band called The Wilderness of Manitoba. Occasionally just the name of a band can give you a pretty good inkling that you're going to like them. That happened for me here, and the feeling was most definitely correct.

The Wilderness of Manitoba released their debut full-length, When You Left the Fire, two weeks ago, and if you like indie folk with gorgeous harmonies, this could just be your new favorite album. The dreamy opening notes of first track "Orono Park" are enough to instantly transport me, perhaps to the wilderness in a simpler time and place. Then the vocals come in, and it's really a thing of beauty. Most of the music on this album is fairly simple. Acoustic guitar, sometimes a banjo or string part. It doesn't have to be complicated; it's there to support the vocals, and their four-part harmonies are what really set the band apart. I've seen Fleet Foxes used as a comparison, and it's probably an apt one. What makes The Wilderness of Manitoba even better, to me, is that one of the vocalists is female, and I'm a sucker for well-done male/female harmonies. And the ones here are done very well indeed.

"Summer Fires" from the album is currently available as a free download from Amazon; it was in fact deemed an editor's pick. I'd strongly recommend it if you'd like an introduction to the band. This majestic sounding song actually made me think of the folksier side of A Northern Chorus, which coming from me is a high compliment indeed. (Hmm, another band whose name alludes to their being Canadian!)

The album continues on with track after track of enjoyable pastoral sounding music. "Native Tongue," the second to last track, might be the album's best track. I'd guess it's the band's drummer's favorite, because it's the only one where his playing will attract a whole lot of attention. That's not meant as a criticism of the rest of the album, because it doesn't need exciting percussion parts. But I'd be happy to hear more songs along the lines of "Native Tongue" in the future. It starts a cappella, and the band's vocal prowess really shines here. Some gentle acoustic instrumentation then joins the voices. A little more than half-way through the song, it completely changes directions, with some atmospheric guitar and an exotic sounding percussion part. It's very different from anything else on the album, but it fits right in, and sounds great.

Closing track "Reveries En Couleurs" is another departure in sound. It's a 13-minute instrumental track, and although it could probably be a few minutes shorter and not lose much, it's quite lovely all the same.

This is definitely an album to check out for indie folk fans, and a band to watch. I saw them open for Cloud Cult at the Grog Shop in Cleveland Heights on Sunday. It was really an excellent performance by both bands; it's rare to see two acts that strong on the same bill. Cloud Cult play high-energy orchestral indie pop; I hadn't listened to them much previously and came away very impressed. I guess a band that includes (variously) a violin, cello, trombone, and french horn in addition to more standard rock instrumentation, and that has up to five people singing at once, is hard for me to resist. On top of all that, they had someone create a painting live on stage during their set. I'd never heard of such a thing before, and it definitely added something to the performance. Anyone who has the chance to see either of these two bands on tour should jump at the opportunity.

Here are a couple of pictures I took at the show; more can be found here.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Okkervil River: I Am Very Far

Okkervil River released a new album last week, I Am Very Far, and it's amazingly good. That the new album is great comes as no surprise, which is itself rather remarkable. What's truly remarkable about this band is how they give each of their albums its own distinct sound and style, and yet have consistently been putting out great album after great album going all the way back to 2002's Don't Fall in Love With Everyone You See. Really, other than The Stand Ins, a companion album to its predecessor, each Okkervil River album could be described as a pretty dramatic change in sound from their previous work. Few bands can do that for so long and never have the quality falter. It's a real testament to Will Sheff's ability as a songwriter.

I'm going to go on a little tangent here. I've seen a few people express disappointment at this album. Personally, I definitely liked it on my first listen, but wasn't yet sure I liked it as much as Okkervil River's other albums. By now I've realized I had no reason for doubt. That's actually not an uncommon experience for me. I remember listening to The Suburbs by Arcade Fire for the first time and thinking it was definitely not as good as Funeral or Neon Bible. Now it's one of my favorite albums of all time (although I still like Funeral just a bit more). In fact, it's almost always the case that I if I like an album, I will enjoy it more after a few listens than on my first listen. This leads me to believe that a significant factor in our enjoyment of music is its familiarity. The interesting thing is that the degree to which my enjoyment increases with additional listens varies immensely from album to album. Is this related to how "challenging" an album is? To how much it diverges from expectations? Perhaps.

With all that said, it really makes me wonder how many times professional music critics typically listen to an album before reviewing it. I have no idea what the answer is, and if anyone reading this can provide some insight that would be great. I do know that to me, the idea of making a definitive judgment about an album after just one, or even two or three, listens is absurd.

I've now given sufficient attention to I Am Very Far to be able to declare that it's another brilliant addition to Okkervil River's catalog. Opening track "The Valley" is a good preview for the album as a whole. It's big sounding, somewhat chaotic, and lavishly orchestrated with all sorts of flourishes from piano and strings. The second track, "Piratess," will sound familiar to many long-time Okkervil River fans. It's a new version of their old song "Murderess." The decision to remake a slow, low-fi acoustic song into a slick-sounding number with a disco-esque beat is a little curious, and I've seen some serious bitching in the song's shoutbox (this goes back to that familiarity idea, no doubt). For me, though, the song really works.

After a strong start, the album just gets better. "We Need A Myth" is the centerpiece, and a contender for the strongest track. There's so much going on in this song, and Sheff's lyrics and emotion-wracked vocals about searching for meaning in the world bring it all home.

What we're after is just this
A myth

And I'm sick

Of all these picture books that try

To steal some old reflections for their light
But desperate measures point to desperate times

Which is why

We need a myth

Strong lyrics are one thing you can always count on in an Okkervil River album. To me, Sheff's way with words surpasses any other songwriter out there right now, and it's really not even close.

"Show Yourself" is another definite standout. Incredibly atmospheric in sound, it's so unlike anything the band has done before (perhaps sounding more like a Shearwater track), and yet so, so good. I really hope this one will be a regular in their setlists; I imagine it would be stunning live. And speaking of Shearwater, Jonathan Meiburg lends some excellent backing vocals to a number of tracks on the album. He and Sheff's voices really work so well together, and I was saddened when it was reported that Meiburg would no longer be with Okkervil River, so it's great to hear him contributing to the new album.

The album concludes very strongly as well, with raucous, irresistible first single "Wake And Be Fine" leading into the absolutely gorgeous closer "The Rise." What it all comes down to is that this is yet another classic album from Okkervil River. I'd be very surprised if a better album is released this year.