Wednesday, 23 January 2013

REVIEW: Speck Mountain - Badwater

*Originally published for The405 (23/1/13)

Some say that when you have found your style, you should stick to it. Why answer to anyone else?

The Chicago-based quartet, Speck Mountain, seem to be the type of band that has no one to answer to. Marie-Claire Balabanian and Karl Briedrick have written together as a creative core for a good few years as Speck Mountain (other musicians contributing intermittently) and appear happy for smokey vocals and wandering guitar lines to continuously define their sound. Baywater, however, is the band's first record as a bona fide quartet, so who knows of its direction with fresh blood in tow...

Opener 'Caught Up' hears Marie-Claire's vocals erupt with an immediate confidence whilst rhythms chug like a desert train. The song is a welcome introduction to Badwater, but is no more enticing than early tracks, 'Slow So Long' and 'Flares'. 90s guitars, muggy drums and a bitter organ stomp around Balabanian's faux-southern drawl on 'Flares' – a voice not unlike Hope Sandoval's of Mazzy Star fame.

Unfortunately, the triumph that is lead single, 'Slow So Long', is brought in too early on this record. Speck Mountain's stylised sound is shaken out of its bed in this track, where electronics complement the band's idiosyncratic, Chris Isaak whammy guitars. Out of nowhere, Balabanian projects stunning celestial harmonies that shift the group from dusty landscapes to ambient-pop terrains, and the results are startling.

The only upbeat number on the album comes in the form of the title track. Drummer Chris Dye's spurring, marching drums roll nicely with tort basslines, which prick their ears to Balabanian's command. Higher octaves counterbalance the deeper, more soulful aspects of Balabanian's singing and guitar solos glisten in a dreamy stream of consciousness. When the band notch things up a gear like this, references come thick and fast to Brooklyn/Washington trio, Widowspeak.

'Young Eyes', by contrast, sounds tired and is at a loss for direction. Where the solos in 'Badwater' skip freely in a gorgeous psychedelic haze, here they sound like they've run out of juice. Perhaps the band was trialling ideas to recreate the free-flow of 'Badwater', but accidently pressed record.

By 'No Words' and 'Live It Down', you're pretty sure you've got Speck Mountain all sussed-out. The former track keeps the record's sound consistent, but the surprising jazz drums and lounge bass found in 'Live It Down' give it some much-needed distinction. A brilliant, delayed surf-rock guitar comes in quite unannounced at the last minute, yet Balabanian's habit of mimicking root notes stifles overall efforts.

The hum that runs throughout the album, aided no less than by Linda Malonis' woozy organ, just about comes to a climax in closer, 'Watch The Storm'. Keys cling, bass lines swell, guitars pulsate and choral vocals yodel across plains, all building towards a crescendo of epic proportions. But it never happens. As if embarrassed of what it promised, 'Watch The Storm' disappears into nothing.

From the start, Badwater is what-you-see-is-what-you-get. It's not as different as was hoped with the band's refreshed line-up and a four year recess from releasing albums. But this is Speck Mountain, and if you like your lashings of drone-rock, Americanisms, and a band proud of its style, Badwater is for you.


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