Review Summary: Not quite indie rock or orchestral pop, Slaves' Graves & Ballads sits on a border of styles thanks to its two-EP-compilation background and drastic change in style.
While front man and band leader Dave Longstreth is known for never staying in one style amongst fans and reviewers, no album is as focused musically as his 2004 release Slaves' Graves & Ballads. More than a collection of two EPs (the aptly named Slaves' Graves and Ballads, both from earlier in 2004), the disc works as a collection of his composed tunes, much as The Getty Address works as a narrative and a culmination of his glitch leanings. All in all, this album leaves the listener both satisfied yet craving more than its 40 minute run time.
Opening track "Somberly, Kimberly" shows the usual lyricism of Longstreth, using metaphor and imagery both bizarre yet rooted in reality. The pounding orchestral bass drum and insistent marimba give the perfect feeling of forward motion that carries the short tune. "On The Beach" introduces the typical singing style of Dave--something of a melismatic favoring thing between a croon and a shriek. Always raw and emotional, the double tracking on this song gives a fullness not usually expected after his first full length, The Glad Fact. The chorus is simple yet catchy, and the clarinet trills under a remarkable falsetto part give way to tender violins before bursting into a section of marching band drums and oddly polyrhythmed instruments. While challenging at first, all parts soon meld to create a soothing and smooth tone not expected after such outbursts.
Track 3, (Throw On) The Hazard Lights, is the closest thing to a pop song on the first half of the disc. Boasting buoyant clarinets and simple acoustic guitar playing chords above strings and below Longstreth's honest vocals, the track is catchy and joyous despite somewhat odd and dark lyrics. "Just like those sparks from off my bumper/Scraping as he trails behind me/Resigning/Throw on the hazard lights/Pull on over to the side/Slowly figure what the problem is/For it's all over before it begins," he croons as laid back guitar arpeggiate and pluck a series of modified chords. Although the song loses some steam after the first verse, as the orchestra drops out, the song is catchy enough to become a fast favorite. However, the all orchestral coda recorded somewhere well above the threshold of the equipment is a flourish needed. Fuzzy, distorted, and grungy sounding clarinets burst in much as they did in the short introduction of the song.
Slaves' Graves, Grandfather's Hanging, and We Are Swaddled form the main suite of the Slaves' Graves half of the album, and also give the best overall feeling of that section of the CD. Upbeat violins, woodwinds and horns sound playful above dark drums on the title track. Distant vocals fit in with the orchestra as an instrument rather than an overdub on the title track. More bizarre images are utilized here, such as "Interior monocots whose rage, expressed in slogans, slumps itself fetal back to the urn." While the line reads like something out of a bad writing class, the melancholic tone taken while singing the line turn the statement into an emotionally affecting chorus. Segueing into Grandfather's Hanging while keeping the tone, the strings hold low chords while a singular horn plays the chorus line giving way to an oboe and finally the full orchestra. Rather than a song about slaves, seeds, and flowers, though, a beautiful song about the sky, black holes, and aluminum siding is woven. Simple yet effective pizzicato bass drives the song before joining arco for the chorus. Longstreth uses his style of melismatic singing to its best here, as well as using the orchestra to add more depth to lines. After a bad edit, flutes finally make their presence known for what may be the most emotional moment on the disc. "Rivers to the sea" aches with longing, and the fast shift to We Are Swaddled's guitar only makes it that much sadder. What being swaddled has to do with slaves and black holes is unknown, but the short tune is a fitting end for the suite, finally giving closure to the album. Or so it would seem.
Hazard Lights (Reprise) brings back the phrases from the distorted section of Hazard Lights, but recorded cleanly here. Only during this short reprise does the actual strength of Longstreth's score come out. Everything interlocks beautifully, and the vocal line sounds better than ever bounced between horn and clarinet. And so ends part one.
Ballads displays the same gift for melody bounced down to just guitar and vocals (save for two tracks). Opening track A Labor More Restful is simply gorgeous as emotions are in the front. Slightly muffled vocals recall the 4-track experiments of earlier disc Morning Better Last! and debut The Graceful Fallen Mango. Not quite a love song, and not quite a breakup song, Labor rides more on the gentle and slightly off-key vocals than the strummed chords. Unmoved, the next song, follows this pattern. A ballad about fall leaves with clearer vocals, multiple sounds of drums clattering are heard before stuttering cymbals fade in slightly and finally some semblance of a rattling pattern comes in again, courtesy of Adam Forkner.
Ladies, You Have Exiled me uses the exact same orchestration as A Labor, but is augmented with the sound of crickets chirping. Longstreth adopts more a broad tenor here than normal, and it works better than the vocals on any of the other ballads. Because Your Light Is Turning Green finally has something not acoustic, as an electric guitar comes in for multiple parts. A love song using traffic lights as a metaphor, the faint chug of a bass drum creeps in and out of the chorus. Culminating in a wave of voices in harmony, Because Your Light Is Turning Green stands as one of the best ballads and one of the best songs from the pre-Getty song catalogue. Obscure Wisdom basically reprises the lo-fi sound of Labor with some shaker and percussion that may or may not be a Coke bottle.
This Weather has the fullest sound out of all the ballads, thanks to multi-tracked vocals, trumpet played by Adam Forkner, and laid back electric guitar. "I can only wonder/What is this weather I'm under?" comes across as both a hilarious turning of a common phrase as well as a sad statement in the hands of Longstreth's voice. However, This Weather's slow and gray mood dissolved into the slightly less gray tone of the stripped down Since I Opened. Ending on a similar theme as A Labor More Restful, Since I Opened isn't the greatest song on the album. It sounds a little like a rehash of Unmoved minus the louder chorus, and the repetition of "How long has it been since I opened up my heart?" gets a little tiring until a chorus of Daves comes in about 3/5 of the way in, along with some nice trumpet flairs. Ending with some final longing strums, the disc closes much as it opened--on a sad yet optimistic note.
While the vocals and odd melange of songs may not fit the tastes of many, this album sits as one of the most daring and inventive things to come labeled as indie rock. Partly because of the fact that it's not rock in any way, and due to the off kilter sound on every track, Slaves' Graves & Ballads is intriguing and thoroughly pleasurable. None of the songs on this album really sound like they were written or sung by a man of only 20, and that is to their strength.