Gravenhurst

The Western Lands

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As good as Gravenhurst was at chronicling late-night desolation on Fires in Distant Buildings, it still doesn't prepare listeners for the leap they take on The Western Lands. More focused songwriting and a big sound bring the delicate features of their music into sharp relief, keeping the intimacy of their earlier work while making it much more immediate. The album's production and arrangements really are remarkable -- The Western Lands sounds polished without being slick, and underscores the drama in Gravenhurst's songs without drowning them in atmosphere. Wide-open musical landscapes dominate, especially on the title track's dark, Friends of Dean Martinez-eqsue twang and "Trust"'s hazy take on tough '60s pop. In fact, most of the album is surprisingly poppy, given the band's signature restraint. However, the excellent, whammy bar-breaking shoegazer riffs on "Hollow Men" are undeniably, head-bangingly catchy, as is the buoyant cover of Fairport Convention's "Farewell, Farewell," which turns Liege & Lief's wistful folk into windswept dream pop. Interestingly, the band's own "Song Among the Pine," with its meticulous acoustic guitar and invocation-like lyrics, is closer to British folk -- and closer to Gravenhurst's traditional sound. Songs like this and "Grand Union Canal," which glides along on jazzy drumming, show that the band is still masterful at creating moods. The album's added focus has also sharpened the band's songwriting; "She Dances" begins with a chugging, hypnotic riff that sounds a little sleazy and dangerous, then Nick Talbot sketches out the regret behind it ("'I need new clothes,' she thinks, 'new skin; a mind I can bear to live in.'"). "Hourglass"' lament "The past is a strange place/But I want it back," set to a looping guitar line, is just as heartbreakingly simple. The Western Lands is bookended with two of Talbot's prettiest, and most unsettling, character sketches: the chilly "Saints" finds Talbot singing "I will trace my blood line" with serenely sinister intent, while "The Collector" sets a serial killer's tale to the album's most beautiful melody. It's an old trick, but the band does it perfectly, as Gravenhurst does most things on The Western Lands. This is the kind of album you can live with and hear new things in with each listen, and proves that the album is an art form that still has plenty of life in it.

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