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Shipping News - Three-Four

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Artist: Shipping News

Album: Three-Four

Label: Quarterstick

Review date: Feb. 27, 2003

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There's skill and there's competence. There's understatement and there's laziness. There's novel and rewarding experimentation, and heaven knows there's crap that has no business being recorded. Lest we go too far with this, none of these terms apply directly to Three-Four, a collection of the three RMSN EPs and four new songs by the Shipping News. Rather, they stand as the poles between which it fluctuates: sometimes inspired but often self-indulgent, Three-Four covers a lot of ground, but it's not really clear where it goes.

There isn't a clean recording anywhere on Three-Four. Extended instrumentals like "Haymaker," with sudden quiet-loud dynamic shifts, demonstrate technical proficiency and show that this isn't a sloppy album, but each would-be succinct part is held a little too long, filtered with a little too much feedback, or simply sounds out of place. The effect created is a busy and layered one, such that on songs like "Haunted On Foot" and "We Start to Drift" the sheer sonic depth compensates for the repetition of the notes being played. But elsewhere, and more commonly, the repetition sticks around long enough that each unchanging measure belabors the original point, no matter how interesting it was.

With some exceptions, the songs on Three-Four don't have enough structural integrity to suit their length, so that a minute or more shaved off most tracks would appear to detract little and perhaps result in a tighter album. Sometimes that extra time is spent repeating the same exact chord progression and rhythm line; sometimes it's just a minute or so of feedback. These are not techniques that are inherently faulty, as any patient post-rocker will attest, but on this set of songs there's not a lot to redeem them.

What Three-Four does best, rather, is convey a vivid and sinister gloom. Take, for instance, "Haunted On Foot": between its over-miked vocals and its curt guitar-bass interplay, it corresponds perfectly well to the indie-rock archetype, like a screechier Pinback or a subdued 90 Day Men, but is not remarkable for any discernible reason except that its uneasy pace and far-off quality somehow combine to create an eerily sinister atmosphere. Similarly, its successor, "Paper Lanterns" uses a low bass vamp and grainy background hum to sustain a menacing rumble beneath various organ bursts (one of many times Three-Four avails itself of the techniques used impeccably on the 90 Day Men's To Everybody). Much like the ugly stitches that run through the inside of the sleeve, the darkness of the album is one that suits its songs and gives them a framework in which to fit.

But mood isn't enough to make an album compelling, and this ain't no ambient record. Sinister or not, "Paper Lanterns" doesn't change its bassline for eight minutes, and, despite excellent beginnings, songs like "Cock-A-Doodle-Doo" have no reason to be as long as they are. On the whole, the tinny drums and scarcely perceptible bass make for interesting foundations, but not entire songs, and too often they're expected to. For every plaintive acoustic guitar track like "...Diamond Lined Star..." there are several like "Non-Volant": over-reverbed and a bit overlong, and the overall effect is something of a trebly monotony.

Strangely, or maybe logically, the new songs are some of the most interesting on Three-Four, and probably the best at avoiding the pitfalls that plague the older ones. The spirited new-wave buzz of "The Architect in Hell" calls to mind vintage R.E.M. and stays fresh throughout its four minutes, while the album's use of effects is at its best on "Wax Museum." Even "Variegated," a dead ringer for latter-day Radiohead laments, makes good use of its stripped down quality. There are highlights among the RMSN songs as well, like "Haymaker" and the sometime Pixies-ish "You Can't Hide the Mark Inside," but the previously unreleased content toward the end is the most exciting and the most fresh.

Which raises the next question: is it worth it? Three-Four offers some good new songs, but only after about an hour of previously released and often laborious material. In theory, if you've been meaning to buy the RMSN EPs but haven't gotten around to it, this is your chance; likewise, if you're the patient type of Shipping News fan, there is plenty here to enjoy. But for the uninitiated, or those of the shorter musical attention span, other albums like 1997's Save Everything would be a safer introduction: Three-Four is simply too filled with excesses and repetitions for its bright moments to add up to a solid album.

By Daniel Levin Becker

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