Eclectic instrumentation steals the show
Diving into Loch Lomond, for the uninitiated, is something of an experience. The nine-member Portland-based band that began as the brainchild of Ritchie Young isn’t afraid of big, bold sounds and playing around with the boundaries of traditional song structure – but in all of that sound and flow is a tapestry of interesting instruments and a dash of the weird.
Having once spent a tour as the opening band for The Decemberists, Loch Lomond’s reputation might carry some cache among savvy folk and indie listeners. With their latest LP Pens of Spain, the band embraces an eclectic and international flavor.
Pens from Spain is speckled with references to countries and places around the globe, just as its instrumentation is pulled from genres like folk, chamber pop and world music. Loch Lomond is based in Oregon but derives their band name from a Scottish body of water – based on those facts and the size of the group, an astute listener might get a sense of their sound even before pressing play. But when they do, they’ll find a sound that leans toward the dramatic and intense.
The first 20 seconds of the album are among its most beautiful, starting with piano before introducing Young’s rich, pointed voice and the threaded harmonies of the band’s female vocalists. Almost immediately listeners are introduced to the band’s quirky references — and their unique method of song structure that fills the songs with mini-movements and pops of color.
The front half of the album shows the group’s versatility, like the electro-pop influence of the rhythm on “Be Mine & Be Kind” contrasted with Young in his falsetto range and a funky little horn solo. “Violins And Tea” proves to have a memorable hook and a somewhat haunting setting, with long, dirge-like strains of odd horns and organs offset with a bright bell section. The two-minute “Holland” shows off what it is that Loch Lomond does best — building up layers from simple parts.
In addition to frontman Young, the band is made up of producer and guitarist Jesse Donaldson, vocalist Brooke Parrott, drummer Ji Tanzer (Swansea, Rebecca, Blue Cranes), keyboardist Rebecca Sanborn (Swansea, Blue Cranes), bassist Pete Bosack, multi instrumentalist Julie Bosack, and trumpeter John Whaley (Thao & The Get Down Stay Down, Run On Sentence). With bands who have so many players, its easy for things to get crowded, but Loch Lomond has been at this long enough to know how to write songs that have lots of layered, simple parts that come together for a grand and stylized sound, rather than letting each instrument or part get too complex.
“Seattle Denver Arms” once again features Young’s falsetto, before the title track comes in with a synthy retro groove. Group vocals, a feature in almost every song, really stand out here, with call-and-response style and wordless fills building to the hook “Friends are new family.”
The spooky undertones come back in full force on “Nocturnal Me,” which represents the darker, dramatic side well — with an edgier narrative of love and lust colored with operatic tones and harmonies. Then the mood lightens up on “Listen, Lisbon” with a more playful tone, and also a striking absence of familiar instrument sounds, instead going with the likes of xylophones and auxiliary percussion and hollowed hand drums. The band’s ability to harmonize stands out strong on this track, and the arrangement sounds fit for a live performance in a subdued, natural setting.
The electronic backbeat returns on the “Soft River,” while album closer “Me & My Arrow” finishes with some solid instrumentation — extra strings and a peripatetic drum part that leave the listener with a sense of momentum. Given that Pens From Spain is a new effort from a band that’s spent many years recording and playing out on the road, there’s a sense of polish and accomplishment to what’s here. A sound this eclectic and idiosyncratic might not be for all listeners, especially those who crave the traditional, but for those who are looking for the noncomforming with an edge of mystery, it makes for an engaging and memorable listen.