Review Summary: A curiously imaginative take on mainstream indie-pop.
Although I’m not sure exactly when it happened (it might have been sometime around the mid-2000s), indie-pop bands just started sprouting out of every little hole in the ground. Sharing this glazed over, streamlined likeness, they all began vying to become the best faux-hipster, coffee shop hero around. I’d try to disguise it with a cough or something, but everyone knows who I’m talking about…Mumford and Sons, Of Monsters and Men, come claim your prizes. For a while, it was actually nice to see the genre ascend so quickly, but the novelty wore off even faster as imitators started joining the rat race by the thousands – ultimately making it difficult to take mainstream indie seriously. That brings us to the current state of affairs here in 2015, although there are some bands that are valiantly fighting to turn the tide. Formed from two-thirds of the group Doves, Black Rivers is one of them.
At a casual glance, Black Rivers’ self-titled debut album screams that it is just another product in the assembly line. It favors melodic pop qualities over grit or substance, the production is so immaculate that the music loses a good deal of its humanity, and you’ll swear that “you’ve heard that before somewhere” more than once. Black Rivers is a flawed project, without a doubt. However, and it’s almost criminal how cheesy this sounds – they dare to dream. It’s true, though. Just when you think you know exactly where a track is headed, they flip everything on its side. Sometimes it’s just an unexpected vocal inflection or intensity that steers away from the trend-set curve, other times it is far more obvious. For instance, they follow up a trio of fairly standard indie-pop tunes with an alluring, cryptic three and a half minute instrumental (well, for all intents and purposes, because technically there are some spoken words echoed in the background) in ‘Harbour Lights.’ ‘Beyond The Pines’ also follows in this vein. It’s the kind of thing that run-of-the-mill bands attempt all the time in an attempt to seem artistically inclined, but Black Rivers actually pulls it off for a couple of reasons. First, the aforementioned tracks aren’t awful desperation grabs in the general direction of ambition – they actually help grow the album. Secondly, they aren’t randomly juxtaposed alongside other songs that have no business being together. There’s rhyme to their reason, and the album’s flow is dictated with confidence rather than precarious doubt. The whole thing is refreshing, and Black Rivers’ willingness to experiment is a trait that will definitely resonate with you following the album’s conclusion.
As I mentioned before though, there’s a percentage of this band’s sound and overall approach that is rooted right into the center of the indie-pop mainstream craze. The implication is that it automatically makes it bad, although that isn’t quite the case. Just like with any genre of music, there are artists that pursue the exact same goal but achieve entirely different outcomes. In the end, it boils down to two key ingredients: talent and execution. The first is a strength for Black Rivers, featuring the aforementioned Doves members Jez and Andy Williams, both of whom are seasoned indie-rock veterans. The second isn’t an overt weakness by any means, but it is where the ship tends to rock a little. Their performances are torn between ones that remain on safe ground, and ones that step off the boat and plunge into the unknown. The problem is that they never manage to do either. Obviously we’d all love to see them take a leap of faith, but their commitment to certain formulas do help them out from time to time. ‘The Forest’ has one of the most infectious melodies I’ve heard all year, and it always sends a small chill up my spine because I can’t help likening it to a lost Shins masterpiece. My main problem with the band’s inability to just completely
lose themselves isn’t that I think their more traditional songs are boring, it’s that I see something in them that I don’t in every dime-in-a-dozen indie-pop band. The truth is, anyone can dream. It doesn’t take a savant to know how to be different. However, and absolutely crucially
, Black Rivers have the savvy and bottom line expertise to actually pull it off. Just listen to ‘The Wind That Shakes The Barley’ for proof of that. They have this way of integrating new sounds, some wildly misfit, and having it all sound dynamic and completely harmonic. At their best, Black Rivers are magic. They just don’t always show us that side.
This is obviously a band that has a lot of places it could go. Jez and Andy could decide to scrap it and re-focus on Doves, but that would be a mistake. They could do what just about everyone expects them to do, and follow this up in the future with another accessible, borderline risky piece that piques our interest but doesn’t ensnare it. That’s about the size of this
album. Or, and hopefully this is the case, they round up of all of their best traits – the experience, the tune-sense, their knack for indie-pop – and turn it into something truly brilliant by letting go of all their inhibitions. Here's to hoping they don't take the safe route.