wears the trousers magazine


speck mountain: some sweet relief (2009)
June 15, 2009, 9:20 am
Filed under: album, review, video | Tags: , , ,

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Speck Mountain
Some Sweet Relief •••½
Carrot Top 

Speck Mountain is first and foremost – at least in historical terms – a peak in central Texas that rises to an elevation of 460 metres above sea level. Its slopes, Google tells us, are surfaced by deep clay loam that supports tall grasses and thick shrubs. Speck Mountain is also the name of this Chicago-based band centering on vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Marie-Claire Balabanian and bassist Karl Briedrick, a pair of New York University graduates who met over Facebook in 2005. Whether the two have any obvious metaphorical connections remains uncertain, but maybe it is the theme of loneliness and harshness that transpires in both settings. It’s clear that no moss gathers on the songwriting pair, who quickly follow up last year’s critically acclaimed debut Summer Above with this intriguingly titled collection.

One of the remarkable things about Summer Above was that the album was recorded and released before the band had actually played a live show together, with Balabanian and Briedrick painstakingly adding layer upon layer of recordings to make their dream-soaked entrance into the music scene. What then followed was a mad few months working backwards, defining live arrangements and recruiting additional band members, so it’s surprising that they even had time to lay down the nine new songs that make up Some Sweet Relief. And there we get to the real source of the title as Balabanian and Briedrick admit that the winter during which the album was recorded was a difficult one and that the songs came together almost out of necessity. “We were severely depressed and lonely, and desperate to the point that we weren’t even sure if we could even put a record together,” say, explaining that they used the recording process as catharsis and as a focal point for their desperation and, as they refer to it, the “feelings of dread that come with growing up and settling down.”

If that description leads you to expect a turbulent ride, Some Sweet Relief is, on first listen, a disarmingly calm affair with simple, laidback percussion, guitar and bass. There is a lot of sonic space in the tracks, with Balabanian’s vocals often becoming the centre of attention. This works well on tracks such as opener ‘Shame On The Soul’; while the instrumentation offers a constant colour, and sometimes comes to the fore through sporadic guitar interludes, Balabanian’s clear and poignant vocals drive the song. On other compositions, such as ‘Fidelity Shake’, the intention is a little lost. The song is so hazy, it becomes all too easy to drift off completely. Speck Mountain are at their best when they allow their soulful side to shine through. ‘Backsliding’ is a supreme example of this as a blue electric guitar and the distant ring of a tambourine set the scene for Balabanian, allowing her to paint vivid scenes before breaking out into a free-spirited high-pitched outro.

Some Sweet Relief definitely shows that there are different sides to the band. While Balabanian and Briedrick revel in their freaked-out lounge sound, there are traces of psychedelia, old-fashioned pop and shoegaze, not to mention soul and blues in a broader context, and standout number ‘Angela’ appears to be a happy fusion of all of the above. There are undeniably some great moments to be enjoyed here, and it’s an acutely atmospheric and expressive piece of work. Repetitive themes of despondence and lack of variation in even the key of the songs, however, make it difficult to grasp hold of for more than two or three songs at a time.

Anja McCloskey
UK release date: 15/06/09; www.myspace.com/speckmountain

 

‘Angela’


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[…] Garden [Martyn Clayton 15/4] 46 Bitter:Sweet – Drama [Anna Claxton 1/4] 47 Speck Mountain – Some Sweet Relief [Anja McCloskey 15/6] 48 Regina Spektor – Far [Nick Christian 28/6] 49 Art Of Time Ensemble […]

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