Shipping News, comprised of four veterans of the Louisville independent music scene, is a group that knows its dynamics. Since its 1996 debut, Save Everything, its songs have encompassed the sinewy and the atmospheric, shifting from cathartic and propulsive to brooding and sinister. Very Soon, And In Pleasant Company , from 2001, is a small masterpiece of shifting moods and sonic reach, dynamiting the familiar loud/quiet/loud patterns normally encountered in math rock for something stranger, deeper and much more lasting.
One Less Heartless to Fear, the quartet’s first album in five years, is less concerned with exploring dynamics than with expressing the propulsive aspects of the group’s sound. Oddly, this also includes a revisiting of the group’s history: two of the nine songs here are live versions of songs previously heard on earlier albums, though, crowd noise aside, they don’t sound particularly different from the other seven here. And given the stripped-down arrangements, the urgent vocals provided by Jason Noble and Jeff Mueller, and the group’s tendency to zero in on a certain riff and dissect it for all it’s worth, the best point of comparison here might well be their contemporaries in Shellac.
The blistering “This Is Not An Exit” leaves a fine initial impression. The vocals are barked, yearning on paper but delivered wrapped in accusations: “Is your heart a frozen river? Is your heart a frozen lake?” States are alluded to, and “Thank God it’s Thursday” makes for an offhand, embittered cap to the song’s catharsis. Todd Cook’s bass provides an anchor for “The Delicate,” which is about as close as this group comes to writing a pop song. It’s catchy, profane, and spends the bulk of its three-and-a-half-minute running time threatening to explode outside of the boundaries set up by Cook’s bassline. And “Bad Eve” and “Half a House” recall the group’s command of texture, the former creating a slow-building sense of dread over a fuzzed-out cloud of distortion and the latter proceeding from ambient beginnings to something massive, clattering, and unsettling.
One Less Heartless to Fear isn’t so much a progression of the group’s style as it is an immersion in one aspect of that style. It’s a much more overtly punk record than Shipping News’ previous discography would suggest: furious at times and sarcastic at others, and almost always relentless. It isn’t the transcendental work of which they’re capable, but nonetheless taps into a thriving, sometimes exhilarating strain of striated rock music. And the phrase “barnyard Mussolinis,” delivered like a curse in “Bad Eve,” has a way of getting itself stuck in one’s head for far longer than expected.