Sometimes there’s that feeling that you’re on the brink of success. After a series of failed experiments, you see that shimmer of a hope that brings with it a sense of perseverance – you’re not going to give up until you get it right.
Most of the time this uncertain period of determination doesn’t last very long – either you push towards the finish line or give up entirely. Yet, somehow Chicago-based Speck Mountain manage to stretch out this special feeling of inspired uneasiness across an entire album.
It’s not such a bad thing. Speck Mountain show a lot of potential in their debut through the songs’ soundscapes, where organs meet the dreamiest of guitars, saxophones blend with a steady bass, and sparse percussive elements cut through nicely. Everything recorded is awash in a sea of reverb, each instrument’s gentle wakes still being felt seconds after they’ve splashed into the recording. What makes the sounds even more alluring is knowing that the band refused to use keyboards or digital effects on Summer Above – it was all pieced together with analog tape delays and a bit of determination.
In fact, it feels like all too much time was spent perfecting the sounds in the studio while the song arrangement went lacking. There are certain groups that can pull off songs longer than eight minutes. The Mars Volta, with their schizophrenic jams, can keep things interesting; so can Explosions In The Sky or Godspeed You Black Emperor, with their epic build-ups. Unfortunately, listening to the crawl of Speck Mountain’s Girl Out West or Chlorine Fields (though it does fare slightly better) can make it feel like Summer Above is longer than it actually is.
Floating along in the ocean of sounds, vocalist Marie-Claire Balabanian sings about, well, the sea. After mentions of the Pacific Sea in Girl Out West and the aptly titled Fjord Song, Balabanian apparently plays a round of Marco Polo on Chlorine Fields. Which is fine, really, since her voice comes across more as an ethereal instrument than a tool used to tell stories, anyway.
Balabanian stretches her syllables out in a slow drawl like Cat Power in some places, elsewhere channeling other laid back female vocalists (compare Hey Moon with Feist‘s My Moon My Man). Repetitive bass lines and infrequent percussion provide backing to the soaring guitars and organs throughout. But none of it feels like it’s going anywhere.
The deemphasized role of percussion on Summer Above may be a big factor in its inability to keep your attention. Speck Mountain mostly rely on shakers, tambourines, and sleigh bells, sometimes introducing a lightbacking beat into the mix.
Album closer Blood Is Clean, the only addition to the UK release, stands out simply because the band finally introduce a prominent, steady percussive rhythm. By adding some cymbal splashes here and there, Speck Mountain could really add some strength, and with a steady beat, these songs could feel more directional and accessible.
Summer Above provides great backing music for a number of activities – walking around town, cleaning up a bit, meditating. But it does not feel like something you can get drawn into, something you can experience. The potential is there, and hopefully Speck Mountain, with another album already recorded, will show off tighter, more compelling song arrangements.