With third album Old World Romance, Sea Wolf bandleader Alex Church collapses the collaborative full-band approach of 2009's White Water, White Bloom, opting this time to write, record, and produce the album on his own and play most of the instruments himself. The result isn't an isolated-sounding album, or even an especially insular one, but Old World Romance does have a sense of singular perspective that goes back to the earliest incarnations of the band when Church operated Sea Wolf mostly as a solo project ornamented sometimes by other players. Rather than a live-band feel in a folk-rock mode, the songs rely more on drum machines and ornate recording arrangements, dropping live drums in and out of perfectly paced acoustic landscapes. Opening track "Old Friend" opens with a spare electronic rhythm and slowly introduces fingerpicked acoustic guitars, dreamy textural elements, and several tracks of Church's self-harmonizing melodies. The production is precise and understated, keeping all of the song's various instruments in check and allowing the introspective overall feel of the song to be the primary focus. Much of the album takes this restrained approach, rounding out any rough edges and leaving behind ten glisteningly smooth songs somewhere between chamber folk and synth-leaning indie rock. The ship-at-sea rhythms of "In Nothing" are informed by the moodiest eras of Echo & the Bunnymen, and the similarities between Church's voice and Ian McCulloch's become very apparent over rocky tempos and '80s-borrowing melodic basslines. "Changing Seasons" is another standout in this set, crystallizing some of the album's upbeat melancholy into a restless anthem. The polished nature of Old World Romance and its deceptively dense arrangements give all the songs a similar color, and at times they lack the dynamics of Sea Wolf's more fiery peers like Arcade Fire or even Bright Eyes, an act to which they are often compared. Old World Romance doesn't have the same sense of wiry urgency those bands sometimes transfer, or even the same fire of the band's most collaborative work, but in this case that's not a bad thing. By going so deeply into himself on this record, Church has crafted an atmosphere that relates its highs, lows, uneasiness, and joys with a sturdy quiet. It may not hit the listener over the head with theatrics or tormented confessions, but the subdued and personal nature of Church's songs here allow for a more intimate connection than on any Sea Wolf material that came before.
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AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas