Speck Mountain’s debut Summer Above was nice, but it was a pair of singles that boss Specks Marie-Claire Balabanian (vocals, guitar, bass) and Karl Briedrick (bass, guitar) released on their Burnt Brown Sounds imprint that really gave me hope that Some Sweet Relief would be something special. One was their cover of Valet’s “Blood Is Clean,” the other a record by Valet herself. Aside from the obvious statement that this is one band that puts its money behind its fandom, it suggested that the pleasant languidness of their debut might flame up into something a bit more, well, burnt.
Turns out that Speck Mountain have less incendiary, more sensible aspirations. They no longer sound like charming beginners, but calculatedly ambitious players. This isn’t an entirely bad thing. Balabanian’s singing has taken on the authority and confidence that come with experience, and she has chops to spare; to hide that fact would be dishonest. Liberally dipped in echo that lends a narcotic haze to her more overtly soul-oriented delivery, she now sounds like Neko Case emulating Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval. Her and Briedrick’s guitars are similarly reverb’d and at times lyrical, but never too unruly — think of Yo La Tengo in a pleasant mood.
This approach pays dividends, particularly on the dreamy closer “Sister Water.” Since-departed keyboardist Kate Walsh’s taste in analog tones owes another debt to Hoboken’s finest; the intro to “Backslider” sounds like someone decided to cross And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out with Musik Von Harmonia. Which is nice, but I’ve always been partial to Yo La Tengo’s splendidly extravagant blowouts, and this record could use some passionate intemperance, or burned-out murkiness, or any other impulse that might shake up its predominantly mid-tempo plod or derail the preening bluesiness.
Speck Mountain might have a great album in them; this one isn’t bad. But I hope that some day they get over themselves and really get down.