The first half of this album would make for a solid B+ EP, though you can lob off the last three minutes of “Ragged Wood” and “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” to no consequence.
“Sun It Rises?” Great intro that evokes a sense of community that’s been lost in the shuffle as people live their lives out in boxes going nowhere. And though the vocal melody on the song – this band’s greatest strength – isn’t close to the most affecting on the album, it’s the guitar figure that I stay for and they nicely build it out over the course of the song, adding flickers of banjo and whipping out the electric guitar after they can’t get louder with the acoustic ones. Useless coda, though.
“White Winter Hymnal?” Great intro that evokes a sense of community that’s been lost in the shuffle as people live their lives out in boxes going nowhere. I mean it – love the way they tease the opening phrase over the album’s best vocal melody until you’re harmonizing with them right as they’re introducing the vocal harmonies. Again, it’s a great build that’s impressively accomplished in a breezy 2 minute and change, and the fact that they evoke images of summer and winter makes it a song for all seasons, and those are a rarity.
“Ragged Wood?” Has Robin Pecknold’s most impassionate vocals and lyrics on the album (“You should come back home, back on your own now”), and though I said the last two parts of the song aren’t anything special, I’ll say that the last part is okay – it’s mostly the second part that bothers me, a quieter bridge and these guys just aren’t very good at the quieter bits. Meanwhile, “Quiet Houses” has a jog-paced jangle that’s well appreciated after the dirge-y proceedings, and “He Doesn’t Know Why” has one of the better vocal melodies on the album and is one of the few times where they use vocal harmonies that do more than harmonize. Something that bears repeating: the employ of vocal harmonies does not warrant Beach Boys comparisons. Or even Fleetwood Mac ones, for that matter.
Anyway: nothing on this album is bad, just boring at worst. In fact, this sort of thing is hard to hate and I think the people who hate it are just doing it out of a reaction to the people who might or might not have but definitely did call this the best album of 2008. The only real throwaway track is “Heard Them Stirring” which doesn’t feature any realized vocal melody, and you’re just listening to a guitar-led instrumental. The random guitar sprinkle (at the 1:18 mark) feels just that – random – and the band enter a quiet bridge shortly after (formulaic on a lot of songs here) and return to the main sequence after that, just louder. Then there’s the fact that a lot of songs do the Yellow House thing (and everyone knows this band have listened to that album when they retooled “Easier” for “English House” for their EP that same year) of coming equipped with useless codas (“Sun It Rises,” “He Doesn’t Know Why” – whose coda didn’t appear on the promotional single so Lord knows what it’s doing here) or else shift to completely different songs (“Ragged Wood”) that try to make them seem more holistic than they actually are.
But my biggest problem with the album? Everything just sounds too tuned (I can picture the band spending 5 minutes on each individual guitar string with a tuning fork to really make sure it was perfect), too well-produced, too well-executed, scrubbed clean within an inch of its life until it doesn’t even sound like humans made it, which means I don’t get anything out of the arrangements. But then there’s the fact that (barring the ones I’ve praised) I don’t get anything out of the lyrics, either. It’s just flaccid animal imagery employed to no particular end result to really hit home that this album ought to be played at the cottage while one is one with nature. I liked the intro of “Sun It Rises” a lot more when I thought it was “Whisper in the morning/evening” in an actual whisper – nope. “Red squirrel in the morning/evening,” whatever that means. Elsewhere, on “Oliver James” (which has some lovely a capella bits that bookend it), a song that tries to evoke sadness and nostalgia, they do the Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy thing of using olde English in the verses (“On the kitchen table that your grandfather did make”) and thus fails on both accounts. Though the band thank Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell in the liner notes, one questions if they’ve really heard either artist because both wrote effective and affecting lyrics.
I’ve inadvertently been exposed to bits and pieces of this album whenever I had to take off my headphones off (listening to something not by Fleet Foxes) to order a skinny-half-sweetened tall pumpkin spice latte at Starbucks with whip cream or trying on new clothes at Club Monaco – and if it wasn’t a song by this band, it was an artist before or after them that sounds like them. You know, clean vocal melodies over clean acoustic guitars. In other words, I’ll be shuffling this album out of my Ipod’s playlist, but I’m not too sussed about it since I know where I can find them if I ever need them. Except “White Winter Hymnal.” That one stays.