Similar to The Decemberists’ work on The Crane Wife, the Kansas quintet White Whale dives into the past for their debut album WWI. It is a world of navigators and admirals, lovers and cynics, and a hell of a lot of ocean. Although a commendable effort from a band that shows remarkable promise, WWI is on the whole a deflated bag of microwaved history and detached feeling under a pretty sky of musicianship. The band is capable enough, but White Whale trips into the whimsy pit of using concept art and fable as an avenue for forging a memorable sound. The result is a sweet outing of daring that doesn’t grip, but seldom fails to glow.
WWI is a concept album of sorts, rife with nautical references, betrayal, and plenty of sea-sprayed longing. Matt Suggs’ voice drips with weighty and breathy word honey, reminiscent of The Church’s Steve Kilbey, especially on the opening “Nine Good Fingers.” The chiming guitars call to each other and answer, twisting a deft little tapestry for Suggs’ lyrics about loss to dance on. The organ and piano lines are garlanded with fuzzy distortion during the catchy vocal ride for added punch. Distance is a recurring motif throughout the album, whether physical or emotional.
White Whale’s influences are many, and their songs reflect a number of sonic avenues. “I Love Lovely Chinese Gal” rings with a chamber-choir vocal in the styling of acid-soaked 1960s psychedelic rock, and the marching dirge, “King’s Indian,” trudges under a bloody snare and moaning oboe. It’s a gloriously diverse little world, beautiful at times, but lacking taught continuity that might steer White Whale’s ship on a steady course.
WWI is a mix of brevity and length, either leaping puddles or spanning oceans. “O’William, O’Sarah” spirals from lyrics about warning and waning into a garbled whirlwind of static-encrusted voices. Tracks like these are a bit longwinded, and tend to sag rather than float under White Whale’s ethereal dynamics. “Fidget and Fudge” is the only instance in which the band scores a direct hit on the expansive front. A mid-tempo percussion of poignant xylophone gives way to a towering wall of feedback in a Smashing Pumpkins-style jam. Suggs’ vocals reflect a mixture of exasperation and wit, lifting the lovable minimalist ride from trough to crest.
Landlocked Kansas has produced a band that rides the glimmering horizons through the scope of its music. Although its sails are frayed, White Whale has delivered a voyage worth undertaking with WWI.
– Matt Wendus