Better late than never, this Los Angeles based indie outfit gains an official UK release for their debut album. Heavily hyped on music blogs last year, Leaves In The River appeared to catch even seasoned US musical observers by surprise.
Essentially a vehicle for singer-songwriter Alex Church, who previously flew under the radar as bass player with psych-popsters Irving, this full-length outing is a follow-up to the breakthrough EP Get To The River Before It Runs Too Low. One track (You’re A Wolf) makes the transition from EP to album.
Church’s introspective songwriting style is tailor made for the college audience that first latched onto Sea Wolf. His hushed vocals and gentle indie pop strum is nothing new, with obvious similarities to be made to The Shins and Fleet Foxes (not least because producer Phil Ek has worked with all three bands).
Recorded and produced in Ek’s Seattle-based studio, the chilly overtones of this album have much in common with that north-western city than Church’s native Los Angeles. The song titles tell half the story (Winter Windows, Song For The Dead, Black Leaf Falls, The Cold, The Dark & The Silence), and the foreboding imagery employed by Church makes plentiful references to decay, darkness and the numbing chill of water.
The title track serves as the perfect introduction to the album, with spooky sound effects leading into a foreboding tale set around a Halloween romance. The song’s simple piano figure works particularly well, never letting the listener settle into a relaxed frame of mind.
Church and his cohorts increase the tempo on Winter Windows and Black Dirt, with the former making excellent use of a squalling accordion and the latter segueing from an acoustic opening into an ominous full band piece. Indeed, it is the excellence of the arrangements throughout that allows the songs to shine. Middle Distance Runner and the aforementioned You’re A Wolf benefit from the album’s prettiest arrangements, with cello and strings adding a suitable gravitas to the band’s four-square indie rock.
The occasional misstep occurs along the way, notably on the forced jauntiness of Song For The Dead and the strained vocal of album closer Neutral Ground. In between, Black Leaf Falls and The Cold, The Dark & The Silence are more successful in conveying a sense of menace, the former through a bleak electric piano and the latter with a bass driven melody straight out of the Joy Division textbook.
The detached nature of Church’s singing is the main criticism to be levelled at Leaves In The River. He never really inhabits these songs, and as a result the lyrics struggle to convey much beyond a self-pitying romanticism glorying in world-weariness and despair. All grist to the mill for the college rock crowd of course, but there are plenty of other songwriters ploughing a similar furrow.