Their best album to date, blending the most beautiful vocal melodies with both folk & post rock guitar wonderment. Warp. 2007.
Review by Heather Phares
As good as Gravenhurst was at chronicling late-night desolation on Fires in Distant Buildings, it still doesn't prepare listeners for the leap they take on The Western Lands. More focused songwriting and a big sound bring the delicate features of their music into sharp relief, keeping the intimacy of their earlier work while making it much more immediate. The album's production and arrangements really are remarkable -- The Western Lands sounds polished without being slick, and underscores the drama in Gravenhurst's songs without drowning them in atmosphere. Wide-open musical landscapes dominate, especially on the title track's dark, Friends of Dean Martinez-eqsue twang and "Trust"'s hazy take on tough '60s pop. In fact, most of the album is surprisingly poppy, given the band's signature restraint. However, the excellent, whammy bar-breaking shoegazer riffs on "Hollow Men" are undeniably, head-bangingly catchy, as is the buoyant cover of Fairport Convention's "Farewell, Farewell," which turns Liege & Lief's wistful folk into windswept dream pop. Interestingly, the band's own "Song Among the Pine," with its meticulous acoustic guitar and invocation-like lyrics, is closer to British folk -- and closer to Gravenhurst's traditional sound. Songs like this and "Grand Union Canal," which glides along on jazzy drumming, show that the band is still masterful at creating moods. The album's added focus has also sharpened the band's songwriting; "She Dances" begins with a chugging, hypnotic riff that sounds a little sleazy and dangerous, then Nick Talbot sketches out the regret behind it ("'I need new clothes,' she thinks, 'new skin; a mind I can bear to live in.'"). "Hourglass"' lament "The past is a strange place/But I want it back," set to a looping guitar line, is just as heartbreakingly simple. The Western Lands is bookended with two of Talbot's prettiest, and most unsettling, character sketches: the chilly "Saints" finds Talbot singing "I will trace my blood line" with serenely sinister intent, while "The Collector" sets a serial killer's tale to the album's most beautiful melody. It's an old trick, but the band does it perfectly, as Gravenhurst does most things on The Western Lands. This is the kind of album you can live with and hear new things in with each listen, and proves that the album is an art form that still has plenty of life in it.
The Western Lands
Warp Records made its name in IDM, and when the books are closed, it's for IDM the label will be remembered. But to their credit, the Sheffield label has gradually expanded well beyond its original purview. These days Warp is arguably less renowned for the mysterious (and suspiciously MIA) likes of Aphex Twin, Autechre, and Boards of Canada than it is for rock acts such as Battles, Grizzly Bear, and !!!. Granted, these acts are only nominally rock acts. They're too uncategorizable to be comfortably placed in any one box, and that's no doubt part of what caught Warp's attention in the first place.
Even so, Gravenhurst, another recent Warp gamble on (for them) a non-traditional act, was perhaps more of a risk than the others. Early on, leader Nick Talbot adhered closely to established gloomy folk templates, but just like his label home, the scope of his music has grown greatly. By Fires in Distant Buildings Gravenhurst had embraced-- or at least gravitated toward-- the psychedelic noise rock of one of Talbot's stated influences, Flying Saucer Attack, finding room between the finger-picking for Krautrock experiments and epic feedback explorations.
The Western Lands continues in this mode, blurring the borders between folk and noise, and the result is probably Talbot's most focused to date. It's still pretty unpredictable, though. "Saints" starts the disc as a ghostly meditation, a spooky yet stately mood piece that never builds up to an expected cathartic explosion. Yet the next track, "She Dances", comes off like latter period Fugazi had somebody spiked their club sodas, all sinewy menace, a tightly-wound mix of guitars, piano, and quietly driving drums, albeit featuring Talbot's just-north-of-a-whisper vocals.
It's an important transition into the shoegaze squall of "Hollow Men", a straight rocker reminiscent of prime Ride, but just as you're surfing the crest of Talbot's wave of noise he downshifts into "Song Among the Pine", a subdued folk song. "Trust" splits the difference, striking a fine middle ground that will bring a smile to fans of the late, great Bedhead. With the title track we're back to more standard indie-rock fare, though "Farewell, Farewell" strums up an intriguing match of concise pop melody and out of control guitar swells.
Talbot's ability to switch between these various extremes without making any of the switches seem extreme is a neat trick. He's just as at ease with the pretty "Hourglass" or the poppy "The Collector" as he is with the stretched out introspective trip "Grand Union Canal". It's what gives the disc its psychedelic edge, but it's also what keeps it from falling into a pattern of pastiche and retro replication.
Sounding straight out of the 1960s would have been the easy route. That Talbot's songs sound very much of the present no matter what era he draws from, only minus the careerist compromises he could clearly make to widen his fan base, constitutes a large part of Gravenhurst's appeal. Even at its prettiest and most accessible, The Western Lands is still a very insular, sometimes uncomfortably intimate album, and listening to it is akin to sharing a tiny but comfortable space in Talbot's closed little cocoon.
-Joshua Klein, October 01, 2007