Review Summary: Meant to evoke the tumultuous relationship between two dichotomous lovers, San Fermin's self-titled debut album is impressive in its ability to create tension through contrast.
From the mind of classically trained Ellis Ludwig-Leone comes the self-titled, debut album from the band San Fermim. Brooklynite and Yale Grad, Ludwig-Leone wrote and composed this seventeen-song LP in just six weeks while in a Thoreau-esque, self-imposed isolation in the mountains of Canada somewhere between Alberta and British Columbia (a move we've seen from the likes of Justin Vernon while writing 'Bon Iver'). The album draws inspiration from Ernest Hemingways 'the Sun also Rises’ and Ludwig-Leone's own quasi-narrative conception. The album is meant as a dialogue between two fundamentally different archetypical characters-- a love-struck, sullen man and a cynical, standoffish woman (think Astrophil and Stella or, more recently, Moulin Rouge).
The characters are given voices by a trio of vocalists. Allen Tate's low rumbling, timber (eerily similar to Matt Berninger's from the National) gives life to the man, while the combination Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe provide the power behind the siren-like woman. The difference between these two conceptual characters is apparent right from the start of the album. In the first track of the album, 'Renaissance!", Tate's baritone, first bare, is slowly accompanied by the sullen, delicate mews of strings; eventually giving way to the overpowering fanfare of brass instruments and a chorus. The mood abruptly changes in 'Crueler Kind', giving the listener almost no time to cope. It is in the former track that we first hear the female duo singing together with a playful condescension. Their duet in this track and also in 'Sonsick', along with the track's quirky instrumentals, gives a sound ala Dirty Projectors (I'm especially fond of the underlying baritone saxophone riffs going on here).
By no means should the instrumentation be overshadowed by the vocals. Ludwig-Leone's masterful control over his composition is clearly shown, especially in the short, purely instrumental tracks that periodically punctuate the album, becoming progressively more frequent and esoteric as the album comes to a close. Ludwig-Leone has the uncanny ability to create composition that can be familiar in its acoustic sound; then he can change hats completely and create something austere and abstract. It is in the instrumental tracks and also the tenth track, ‘the Count’ that we can clearly hear inspiration drawn from Nico Muhly (an innovative contemporary composer). Tracks such as 'True Love, Asleep' and 'Daedalus' feature the sparse plucking of strings and eerily beautiful, resonating choral voices that mark Nico Muhly's pieces.
Especially enjoyable is the loose narrative 'San Fermin' meanders down. The album begins in media res--full of fire, tumult and strong emotions. Tracks switch from Tate to the girls almost schizophrenically, instilling the listener with a strong sense of opposition and friction. As the album nears its girth, the vocals become increasingly more male with Laessig and Wolf accompanying and the instrumentals become frantic and dissonant. The narrative finally receives its resolution, with only four tracks left, with 'Oh, Darling' and then 'In the Morning' where we finally hear all the vocalists singing together in harmony (a sound reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens). The mood becomes calm; like the drifting of leaves to the ground after a harsh, August thunderstorm. All three vocalists change the quality of their singing--Tate becomes more soulful and Laessig and Wolfe more sultry. However, Ludwig-Leone doesn't allow this resolution to linger, as he ends his hour of music with two instrumental question marks.
What I truly appreciate about this album is the combined effort of all involved to create tension through contrast in a variety of ways--between the girls and Tate, the instrumental and vocal tracks and even within each track; where mellow vocals compete with majestic fanfares and high, tinkling singing is interrupted by the grunts of a bari sax. San Fermin kept me both intellectually interested and emotionally involved throughout the whole album. What was merely a concept in the mind of a man in solitude in the mountains became something almost tangible--like a hug, a kiss or a slap. Ludwig-Leone, Tate, Wolfe and Laessig will ensnare you in this intense story of infatuation.