Sea Wolf - White Water, White Bloom
Record Label: Dangerbird
Release Date: September 22, 2009
Alex Church, formerly of Los Angeles-based indie-rock outfit Irving, formed Sea Wolf in 2003 as an outlet for songs he wrote that didn't fit his band's style. Our first introduction to Church's new creations came on the 2007 EP Get to the River Before It Runs Too Low, with the full-length Leaves in the River dropping later that year. Given the moniker for his new project and his choice of album titles, it's no surprise that nature is a major theme in his songs, and the music's lush orchestration, with layers of strings, provides the perfect folky feel.
With his latest release White Water, White Bloom, Church picks up right where he left off. "Wicked Blood" opens the album, and it's a jangly indie-rock tune that's pretty straightforward, keeping the grave-sounding strings mostly in the background (for now). There's a distinct romantic baroque-pop vibe, a la The Decemberists, in "Dew in the Grass," which also contains some of the heaviest, menacing guitars on the album. I'd classify it as a better-executed example of what Meloy and company were shooting for with The Hazards of Love, an album that I know a lot of people loved, but for which I can't proclaim the same feeling.
Often, Church's vocals have an almost Conor Oberst-like fragility, and the quavery warble makes an appearance on "Orion and Dog," an acoustic guitar-led folk piece. He sounds more assured, but mournful, on the pastoral "Turn the Dirt Over," the mood of which is reinforced by the cello gliding along the bottom, and he's more strident still on the more aggressive rocker "O Maria!," a song that retains Sea Wolf's orchestral bent but is more uptempo and has a more prominent drum stomp than we've heard thus far, somewhat along the lines of The Dear Hunter.
"White Water, White Bloom" continues with Sea Wolf's bucolic imagery and seems to demonstrate Church finding a sense of spirituality while among the elements, and this is also illustrated in the track that follows it, "Spirit Horse," which manages to be simultaneously earthy and ethereal. While all of the songs on White Water, White Bloom possess meticulously crafted melodies, "Spirit Horse" is arguably the most memorable of the bunch.
The warm Bright Eyes touch returns on the peacefully rustic "The Orchard," a tender ballad on which Church sweetly delivers the line "everything I need is written on your face," amid the usual images of plants, animals, and celestial bodies. The sprightly arrangement and pacing of "The Traitor" belies its darker subject matter, but the sullen moment is fleeting, as it makes way for the startlingly beautiful closer "Winter's Heir."
Pretty much my only complaint with the album-- and it's a small one at that-- is that there isn't anything as overtly Eastern European as "Winter Windows," the DeVotchKa-styled standout from Leaves in the River. Still, the string arrangements are used to evoke a variety of textures, never as brooding as Murder by Death or excessively precious, but covering most of the ground in between. What's most impressive and notable about White Water, White Bloom is that just about every track sounds like a perfect indie-rock single-- you can hum along with just about all of it by your second listen-- but with each successive spin, there's still much to discover within the album's layers. Whether or not any of these songs earn spots on commercials, like "You're a Wolf" did, is immaterial. With White Water, White Bloom, Church has demonstrated that he's much more than simply a writer of made-for-TV jingles, and deserves mention among indie-rock's heavyweights.