Research Freelance Whales, and you’ll come up with a wealth of blog buzz about this young Brooklyn collective who’ve only been playing together for a little over a year. From their experimental instrumentation to their affinity for ghost stories, to their habit of playing on New York subway platforms, they’ve built up a healthy layer of folklore to match their homemade aesthetic.
But buzz does not necessarily translate into glowing critical reception; for the most part, their debut album, Weathervanes, has been shrugged off in their home country (where it was released a while back) as a twee, pedantic apery of the band’s influences. Sure, it’s easy to compare Freelance Whales to other major players – most obviously Death Cab For Cutie, The Postal Service, Sufjan Stevens, and (unfortunately and unfairly) Owl City – but their music is more than a mere regurgitation of familiar indie clich�s and banjo-toting gimmickry.
Weathervanes is a concept album whose narrative focus is on a young man who’s fallen in love with the ghost-woman who haunted his childhood home. He imagines her alive, but he also imagines himself joining her in her haunted world, the two of them “ghosting” together. The concept is an intriguing one and it lends the album a cohesive emotional core, but it doesn’t limit the music the way long-form narratives often do. Frequently, front man Judah Dadone’s narrator comes off as more awkward than haunted, but his somewhat nerdy, navel-gazing introspectiveness cements him in his post-modern time and place.
On their website, Freelance Whales point out that they are more collectors of instruments than multi-instrumentalists. What this means is that the banjo, glockenspiel, and harmonium playing is not virtuosic; but while it lacks in trills and thrills, it more than compensates with earnestness and emotion.
Generator (First Floor) opens the album with a slow-building drone, cut in by simple banjo plucking, big percussion, and an otherworldly choir. “We get up early just to start cranking the generator,” Dadone sings. “Our limbs have been asleep, we need to get the blood back in them.” Dadone’s voice sounds an awful lot like an amalgamation of Ben Gibbard and Sufjan Stevens. It’s the sort of voice that is almost disturbingly smooth around the edges, almost too quietly chirping – so much so that you wonder if he’s ever had anything to yell about.
Hannah and Starring both encapsulate the band’s sound, meshing synthesized keyboards and drum loops with organic elements and Dadone’s syrupy tenor. On Hannah, he sings, “Please don’t play the matchmaker, please don’t be a player hater. If you dig her recent work, you should go congratulate her.” Pedestrian lines for a man in love with an apparition. Starring features a quirky, haunting refrain, though: “This is me starring in a stranger’s nightmare.”
Perhaps Freelance Whales occasionally come off as too cutesy for their own good, and perhaps they do, at times, sound eerily similar to one post-millennial indie-pop group or another. But as a whole, Weathervanes is a largely successful and ambitious trip into uncharted territory for the band, and despite its somewhat saccharine sheen, the album wears well with multiple listens and creates a spooky, dreamlike economy of its own.