Artist: The Spill Canvas
Label: Reprise Records
Acoustic music tends to be introspective by definition – the earthier, simplistic sound lending itself to the wholesome discussion of innermost thoughts and feelings. Perhaps I’m too cynical, but the token acoustic track on any album is more likely to raise an eyebrow for the band’s attempt to be melodic and serious, and not its intense depth of feeling. It can be difficult to make it interesting given the generally standard approach and instrumentation, and too often acoustic music comes across as wanting or whimsical in the absence of any real purpose or personality.
Unfortunately, this is a trait that Gestalt exudes a little too much for my tastes. It is musically faultless and atmospherically very well evoked, but for an album that seems to dwell on journeying I’m not entirely sure there’s much to be bothered about on the way. It’s polished, and stylistically impressive, but the songs tend to dawdle and offer little in the way of real excitement. If one overlooks the more acerbic lyrics, there is a charming amiability to the record, and Nick Thomas’ vocals are suitably beguiling. However, it’s a little bit too everyday and uninvolving and when it’s done playing, precious little seems to linger in its wake.
“Whiskey Dream Kathleen” is rather downcast as an album opener – slow-burning and morose, with aching vocals inching over a threadbare musical landscape. The drums add some bombast and depth to the intense longing on show and it is vaguely compelling, but its designs on poignancy are never realised and it seems to whimper by. “Chemicals” is more alive, walking a fine line between indie and edgy with the acidic bite of Thomas’ vocals and a vigorous lead guitar. It’s better than the opener, but not massively catchy either. This seems to be the case for much of the album – there is obvious appeal and it’s enjoyable, but it never gets under the skin. It’s passable as opposed to enthralling, and if it doesn’t strike a chord with the listener on subject matter it comes across as routine or generic. “Parallels and Money” is laconic and bitter, laying its contemptuous words out plainly. In spite of these caustic lyrics, the song has a shyness and sensitivity that is thought-provoking, but it sounds distinctly formulaic and ultimately lets itself down.
“From: San Francisco” and “To: Chicago” are far more impressive. The former is a welcome show of life – jovial and idealistic, with a vacant undercurrent of guitar that showcases a dreamy and pensive heart. This acts as a kind of conscience, removed from the more rhythmic main refrains, and evolves into an energetic chorus. “To: Chicago” is the trade-off – numbed, piercingly emotive, and grey, with a palpable despondency in its verses. It’s a far more mature and complete track, bolstered by the sudden aggression of its chorus and Thomas’ scarred, intense vocal performance. These two tracks succeed in crafting a sense of wonder and conviction and anchor themselves with a compelling sincerity that seems to be lacking elsewhere. Whereas some of the tracks seem staged and ordinary – the lacklustre instrumentation of “Off a Cliff,” for instance, commuting it from intriguing to unimaginative – these seem to come from the heart and have a fervour that strikes the listener.
The album’s final few songs fare better. “The Meds” has a feverish undertone and sense of desperation that captivates, evidenced in the sharp and purposeful riff that drives the song throughout. “Mariana” is smooth and enthralling, its confident pace and playful instruments letting it stand out from the pack. “My Vicinity” is good, but uneven – a sentimental offering, it’s considerate and soulful, rescued by the rolling bass and guitar as the strings threaten to derail it. The chorus doesn’t convince – the awkward pace leading it to sound somewhat tongue-in-cheek – but it doesn’t wallow and endears despite its predictability. “Sabotage Internal” suffers from the same lack of involvement as the earliest tracks and in this regard, ends the album on an apt note. It’s leisurely and never quite conjures the sense of significance or occasion that it wants, even with a heady guitar solo, and might have worked better as a shorter track.
Fans of The Spill Canvas are likely to warm to Gestalt, but it’s a sodden and underwhelming release for the casual listener. It has its moments and some of the songs are beautifully crafted, but there’s something very indifferent about the album and it’s a difficult one to get excited over. Worthy of a listen for sure, but decidedly vanilla.
Review written by Grace Duffy