Killer or Filler?
Seryn: This Is Where We Are
In little over a year, Seryn has generated a fair amount of buzz around the state and across the nation, making the band’s first full-length, on Fort Worth’s Spune Productions label, one of the most hotly anticipated local records of 2011. That effort, This Is Where We Are, had a lot of expectations to live up to, thanks to the band’s reputation as a formidable live act.
Though Seryn’s music is comfortably familiar, the sextet is no tired retread of the folksier indie-pop acts out there. The band’s sound falls somewhere between that of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes –– though less sassy and outsized –– and Fleet Foxes sans the reverb-drenched harmonies and mountain feel. This Is Where We Are is just as polished as anything those guys have put out, and it delivers on the promise of Seryn’s live shows.
For starters, it’s one robust album. Soft, swirling guitar work on the opener, “So Within,” gives way to a steady, propulsive rhythm and soaring harmonies. The group takes it down a notch on the following two tracks, especially “Beach Song,” whose quiet beginnings mushroom into a powerful last minute and a half. The sound is ratcheted back up with some sweet interplay between banjo and violin, the drums all the while crashing like waves. From here on out, a variation on this formula repeats –– the next six songs, each clocking in at five minutes or more, swell from layers of vocals and slow-building instrumentation.
“Anthemic” is probably the word you’ll hear most to describe Seryn’s music. On this outing, that label applies nowhere more than on “We Will All Be Changed.” With lyrics about personal growth, the future, and the limits to any conscious control we might exert over either, the song also exemplifies the band’s earnestness. For some listeners, this sentiment, which permeates the album, will be a serious minus. It’s something that typically plays better onstage, backed by raw energy, than in the studio. But the group plays so tight that to most listeners this will seem a minor quibble, if it registers at all.
Closing out This Is Where We Are, an organ drones in the background, and a weary banjo takes some tentative steps for a minute before giving in to a short romp, replete with hand claps. With this untitled track, Seryn finds the right note to end on –– still full of steam, the band’s at the end of only Chapter 1. And the book will be long. –– Zack Shlachter
My Wooden Leg: A Circus
A Circus, My Wooden Leg’s new EP, is more or less a mini-concept album in which a deranged ringmaster introduces listeners to a variety of hard-luck characters trying to navigate twisted or heartbreaking situations. That device has been a little over-familiar since the early-’70s musical Cabaret trademarked the leering, decadent master of ceremonies, but My Wooden Leg frontman Michael Maftean, who co-produced A Circus with Joe Tacke, nevertheless makes the device intimate and urgent. Maftean simultaneously fleshes out and tightens up his gypsy-flavored baroque country sound, taking his outfit –– rounded out by Jacob Martinez on bass and backup vocals, Joshua Jones on drums, and Brandon Arthur on violin –– from eccentric semi-novelty act to serious, ambitious band.
The CD is bookended with two versions of the title track, a low-key but grotesque carnival romp that begins with the singer inviting listeners to “Come one, come all of you / You hideous souls.” As the MC, Maftean is in full character mode here, his deliriously eager tone soaking the lyrics like absinthe as he introduces the motley crew. His Romanian folk roots surface most obviously on the wonderful “Igor,” full of swirling gypsy strings and thumping percussion, and his warm, gentle vocals are showcased to graceful effect on the Tom Waits-ish “Lullaby for the Wicked.” The rockabilly beat-driven “Hell’s Half Acre” (a nod to the band’s Fort Worth roots) is the most rocking of the six tunes here, cutting loose on a notorious legendary neighborhood best summed up by Maftean’s gleeful line: “Don’t you know that we still carry guns?” Although A Circus sometimes feels a little hamstrung by its freak-show theme, the EP still proves that My Wooden Leg’s musical chops are as feverish and inventive as its lyrical imagination. Clocking in at just over 20 minutes, A Circus is begging to be expanded into a full-length.
–– Jimmy Fowler
Mission to the Sea: Tranquilo
Singer-songwriter pop with bossa nova flourishes? From Dallas? Sounds like a recipe for disaster. Dabbling in any older, foreign genre is certainly cause for suspicion, as it can easily result in stylized, gimmicky, and inauthentic dreck. (Think of the saccharine jazz-pop failure of Sondre Lerche’s Duper Sessions.) On Tranquilo, however, Mission to the Sea pulls off the blend quite handily.
After a nearly six-year recording hiatus –– the EP Red Light dropped in early 2005 –– Mission to the Sea is back with its first full-length. Frontman and chief songwriter Deck Sachse’s day jobs, as an entertainment industry lawyer and a staffer on Dallas’ Kirtland Records, might explain the hefty interval. On both records, Sachse handled production duties jointly with Steven Collins, frontman of the roots-rock outfit Deadman.
A smooth 10-track outing, Tranquilo dives into heartbreak without letting it overwhelm. In fact, it might take a few listens before the subject even becomes obvious, so effortlessly does the sound take hold. Thankfully, Sachse also veers in and out of the bossa nova feel, landing Mission to the Sea in a hard-to-categorize space somewhere between Beth Orton and Andrew Bird. (The instrumental second half of “Sleeping in Phone Booths” recalls Orton, for instance, while the title and wordplay in “The Crushing Weight of Atmospheres” brings to mind Bird.) Sachse’s lyrics are sometimes clever, sometimes clunky, but his strong delivery keeps him from tripping over them. The vocals are soothing and a little plaintive, if not that bold or showy. The record has a continuity that carries even the one misplaced track, a take on Morrissey’s “Everyday is Sunday.” It’s an odd choice, a well-known song that has spawned some equally well-known covers over the years. Pleasant though it may be in Mission to the Sea’s chosen idiom, it could have benefited from a more daring arrangement on the one hand or even quieter –– and thus more haunting –– production on the other. Still, Tranquilo ends on a strong note, “Is A Bel,” mixing the figurative and literal, the swell of soft instrumentation bringing the record to a fitting close. –– Z.S.