Thursday, May 14, 2009

SPECK MOUNTAIN - Some Sweet Relief (Carrot Top)

(This article was originally written for the website Muso's Guide,

Chicago-based trio Speck Mountain first came to attention with their 2007 debut Summer Above, and Some Sweet Relief mostly sticks to the same formula they first made their name with. All measured tempos, tasteful minimalism, slow-burning arrangements and narcotic, reverbed vocals, it’s a sound that recalls Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Albatross’ or Mazzy Star; an intriguing mixture of evocative Americana and airy dream-pop.

Opening track ‘Shame on the Soul’ sets the predominantly unhurried tone, creating a drowsily atmospheric mood-piece out of its core constituents: a gentle, quietly repetitive chord progression; unobtrusive clock-like percussion; sporadic blues licks and, perhaps most importantly, the soothing, country-influenced vocals of Marie-Claire Balabanian. In a strange sort of way, her impressive pipes tend to enhance the soporific tone of much of this record, yet simultaneously prevent the album from descending into mere background music: her vocals seem somehow both numbed-out and infused with feeling. This is particularly evident on a track like ‘I Feel Eternal’, which combines a descending chord progression, melodic guitar arpeggios and sparingly used horns in what is arguably the standout track here. The interplay between scorched, echoing guitar licks and Balabanian’s relatively (and we stress the word ‘relatively’) urgent vocals on ‘Fidelity Shake’ provides another highlight.

It’s hard to see the generally unimaginative lyrics as anything other than tools used to enhance the mood and atmosphere of the music, dealing as they do mostly in vague imagery. Indeed, the hypnotic ‘Angela’ features no lyrics at all apart from wordless, ethereal harmonies and the repetition of the title, backed by a vaguely trip-hop rhythm and ambient guitar work.

Unfortunately, the second half of the album may well test the patience of anyone initially drawn in. It’s tempting to blame this on the consistently mid-tempo pace and lack of fire in the arrangements, but such a criticism is overly simplistic: by the same token, you could criticise Never Mind the Bollocks for lacking restraint, which is sort of missing the point. With Speck Mountain, a lack of urgency is part of the deal, and the second-half slump is more a case of a drop in standards. ‘Backsliding’ and closing track ‘Sister Water’ are unremarkable, pallid affairs that run the risk of inducing boredom in the listener, rather than the entrancement they evidently aim for.

Nevertheless, Speck Mountain’s aesthetic is frequently very effective: at its best, this is music that conjures images of wide, sun-baked open spaces, creating a dreamy sense of tranquillity as well as a sense of ever-so-slight movement. The next album may well be the deal-breaker.


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