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White Whale - WWI

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Artist: White Whale

Album: WWI

Label: Merge

Review date: Nov. 26, 2006

There's a wild hair of weirdness running right through White Whale's first album, rupturing what might be relatively accessible indie guitar rock with bizarre images, sudden shouts and a sort of rock-opera narrative with a mysterious Admiral at the center. Consider how the album starts. Against a driving, hail-on-windshield sort of beat, couched in reverberating masses of guitar drama, Matt Suggs ventures his first two lines of lyrics. "Won't you lay your nine good fingers on me," he sings, in that insinuating, frontman murmur that insinuates sex regardless of what the words actually say. But then the whole thing goes haywire, as he finishes, "Would you please keep that lone one wrapped in gauze." What's wrong with the finger? You never find out, but the image is disturbing, disruptive, explosively, deeply wrong...in the most interesting way possible.

White Whale is Matt Suggs’ new project, regrouping his band from Amigo Row – John Anderson, Zach Holland and Dustin Kinsey – and adding the Get Up Kids' Rob Pope on bass. It's an interesting combination of energies. Anderson, Holland and Kinsey came from the baroque pop band Thee Higher Burning Fire, Pope from emo, Suggs from Americana-tinged noise pop of Butterglory. You can hear all that in WWI, too, as the whimsical pop precision of, say, "The Admiral" gives way to rough, emo-shouted choruses, or as the surpressed rapid-drummed tension of "What's an Ocean For" erupts into flourishes of elaborate pop.

It feels more like a band and less like a singer's back-up group because all the instruments get a shot at the limelight here, ebbing and receding into outsized orchestral textures. For instance, the piano becomes a central character in cuts like "Nine Good Fingers" and again in "What's an Ocean For?" as Kinsey slips in hallucinatory jazz figures between blinding walls of rock. Then there's the thudding pulse of bass at the bottom of "What's an Ocean For?" that somehow transforms what might have been a ballad into a jittery, onrushing locomotive – and the drums, ever skittery, off-kilter and unexpected erupting with tension in the corners. The songs are painted on very large canvases, nothing minimal about them, but they seem uncontainable rather than bombastic. Everything is exploding, everything's in motion, and if the action gets excessive...well, that's what happens when you stand in a minefield.

There's a sort of continuing storyline in this album: a man at sea, adventure, love left behind, mortality. The album art continues the thread, with wonderfully odd paintings (Tabitha Morris gets the credit) of ship-devouring sea monsters, mermaids and other mythical creatures. The main character, the Admiral, is apparently named "Yummyman," but you should absolutely not let that get in the way of your enjoyment of the music. The best songs here are stand-alone celebrations, semi-mystic lyrically, but exuberantly alive. Maybe the peak moment comes in "We're Just Temporary Ma'am," yet another entry in the "We're all going to die so let's fuck now" cannon so dear to traveling musicians. "Hold me my love / Forget what you think of / Tonight I am here / So hold me my dear," goes the chorus, and as the words end, a white wall of distorted guitars blasts in, the martial pace of drums pushes on, all noise and surge and triumph in the face of death.

You'll hear a hint of Arcade Fire in the shout-along choruses, a whisper of Neutral Milk Hotel in the tales of deformed love, an intimation of the Decemberists in the pantomime sea shanties that explode into rock. They're all pretty faint echos, though, the vaguest kinds of familiar outposts in a sea of strangeness.

By Jennifer Kelly

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