Coming Up for Air, You Might Not Get What You Expect
It is perhaps fitting that the title of Manchester Orchestra’s new album, A Black Mile to the Surface, calls to mind the feeling of being deep underwater. Many groups of the folk and indie rock persuasion seem to have adopted a style as of late that puts some sonic distance between the listener and the source of sound. Oddly, Manchester Orchestra seem to have succumbed less so to this syndrome. A single track on this new release, “The Wolf,” slightly exhibits this, along with its doppler-affected guitar distortion and vocals that, if delivered in a slightly lower register, might vaguely emulate Morrissey.
It is the high tenor, sometimes showy falsetto, of lead vocalist and songwriter Andy Hull that lands this band squarely in the domain of the popular — even among independent labels. Many tracks, among them, “The Maze,” “The Moth” and “The Parts,” evoke popular artists across genres and subgenres. These include The Lumineers, Imagine Dragons and even Ed Sheeran. Early on and throughout, an enjoyable tendency towards rich, almost choral textures is paired with Hull’s slightly nasal vocal quality, which may remind folk fans of Simon & Garfunkel, reimagined for the revivalist age.
These titles may read like thirds of a trilogy, or episodes of Seinfeld, and it seems that the tracks on the album with the slightly more menacing noun-names are the ones that bridge over into rock more so than a softer indie or folk sound. Sometimes this contrast is showcased within a single track, like on the perplexingly-named “The Grocery.” Its episodic guitar riffs are interspersed with periods of great lyrical melodrama and a much more mellow, folksy sound. Offbeat percussion rounds out this track, presenting a motif that is also present throughout the album. Many numbers rely on percussion to dictate their textures and moods.
Vocals are often foregrounded, if not the Orchestra’s lyrics themselves, which are highly emotive and depict imagery of childbirth and other minor dramas of the human condition. The tracks are not excessively long so as to drag, but are long enough to deliver their narratives and often feature codas and fade-outs that contain non-musical sound and speech. The eleventh track of A Black Mile to the Surface hits the mark on edgy marketability, and should be a favorite with fans of the genre.