Review Summary: Diverse indie rock from the Evergreen State.
Feral Children - Second to the Last Frontier
Feral Children's musical beginnings are inauspicious at first glance. Bassist/vocalist Jim Cotton was kicked out of his home in South Boston when he was a teenager and left to live with his extended family in the coniferous forests of Washington. There he met up with Jeff Keegan, guitarist/vocalist. Their first stab at music together was "play[ing] grunge on acoustic guitars to the horse on the farm next door." Normally when a band tells a story like this, it's to contrast their humble beginnings against their new, developed, larger-than-life sound. In Feral Children's case, yes, they are no longer playing "Spoonman" to Mr. Ed, but there is a lot to cherish in those beginnings, beyond an opportunity for a harsh contrast. In the past year, we've seen the rise of artists like Bon Iver and Have a Nice Life, who have borne stunning albums from the solitude of rural America. For Emma, Forever Ago
was the product of Justin Vernon's hibernation in the woods of Wisconsin and Deathconsciousness
, the product of Dan Barrett and Tim Macuga's permanent residence in the outskirts of Middletown (aka middle of no where), Connecticut. Second to the Last Frontier
though nowhere as bleak or depressive as the aforementioned albums seems to benefit from the alchemical quality that the forest of the United States can have over an album. The same quality that can turn a grunge song on an acoustic guitar into something a little more. Bon Iver's simple instrumentation and songwriting belies the emotionally huge stakes of the music, while Have a Nice Life's lo-fi production and aesthetics are similarly trumped by the epic shoegaze fuzz that engulfs every track. Albums that have simple constructs find ways to become larger than they really are.
Second to the Last Frontier
is no exception. Other than the fact that their only musical influence on their myspace page is "the woods," Feral Children certainly carry on the legacy of other "forest music" by taking simplicity and elevating it. Taking cues from Meneguar, (old) Modest Mouse, and Animal Collective, they produce a brand of indie that is simple rock and pop in premise but is much more complex in execution. There are flourishes of surf rock ("The Beast = Goldmine"), ambient/shoegaze ("Space Face"), and even at moments the vocal qualities of punk ("Jaundice Giraffe"), making this album a panoply of different genres and sounds. They write neither tight indie anthems (think "Meneguar" who hardly stop to breathe between guitar riffs) or endless spacy jams (think of M83's floating ambience), but some combination of the two. Tracks can alternate between tautly composed sections and open-ended ones, or just push the two together, creating nicely midtempo tracks with detailed, pensive atmospheres. Take for instance, the outro of "Lost in the Woods." There are miles of electronic ambience and reverby background vocals, but right after that we're greeted by the more straight-forward rocknroll chord progression of "Saint." "Space Face" is three minutes of pure synthesizer fuzz but is offset by the twangy surf rock of "The Beast = Goldmine" and the closer "Zyghost," a track that despite its curious title is one of the more run-of-the-mill, upbeat indie anthems of the album. Most sublime are the moments when all the idle gazing and the fist-pumping come together. "Jaundice Giraffe" has the shredding vocals and repetitive drum roll, but is built off of an eerie background vocal melody and shimmering ambient guitar accompaniment. Like some kind of musical Gestalt Illusion, it's driven by its negative space rather than its positive space.
In fact, the strongest argument against Second to the Last Frontier
is that it doesn't always locate those sublime moments. Some tracks are boorishly indie, like "Me, Me, Just Me," a track whose interludes and diversions are more interesting than the verses and choruses. The next track "Baby Joseph Stalin" is characterized by the same heavy-handedness, but also works in some woefully non sequitir lyrical choices. Essentially, Feral Children sound best when they are more than their influences, the Seattle indie heroes like Modest Mouse that have already carved out a now oft-replicated sound. They are best when they are as original as possible. "Billionaires vs. Millionaires" ending on wild vocal murmuring, as strange as it is, is engaging and somehow works with the 16th note cymbal accents from the song's upbeat, bouncy verses. The screamed vocals, generally a no-no in the pop-driven world of indie, work beautifully in a track like "Jaundice Giraffe," which otherwise is very placid and unaggressive. When Feral Children take chances, they pay off, when they rest on their laurels, Second to the Last Frontier
feels like just that, a missed opportunity at hitting that "final frontier." At the end of the day, despite specific criticisms and a few duds, Feral Children have put together a wonderful debut LP, that shows an amazing progression beyond their humble beginnings as rural kids with acoustic guitars. Not to say they are the next Bon Iver or Have a Nice Life, but they certainly have made an album bigger than themselves, maybe with some help from the forests of Maple Valley, WA.