It would be easy to lump the self-titled debut by Charlottesville, VA.'s South in with the gaggle of instrumental albums flooding the indie rock landscape these days. The catch is that the record is far from instrumental, making maximum use of guitarist Patrick Phelan's opaque vocals as a main ingredient of a gentle, intriguing overall sound.
Although South is reminiscent of more recognizable instrumental groups, the band uses the genre's feel merely as launching point instead of an overarching style guide. It shares with groups like Ativin and Windsor For The Derby a love of keyboard-enhanced atmospheres and intertwining guitar repetition, but its use of dulcimer and vibes recalls both fellow Virginians Labradford and Tortoise. Phelan's vocals, although low in the mix, lend the songs the kind of personal feel often lacking in instrumental music. South has a very satisfying range of moods and textures, from the extremely minimalistic and ambient "Close Value" to the urgent, emotional "Smoke" and "Walk." "Smoke" blends looped and live guitars around a melodic bassline, building toward a louder vocal passage that hints at the understated singing of Seam's Sooyoung Park. The magnificent "Walk" meanders through low-key time changes, arriving at a piano-driven midsection and working through a number of other cleverly composed sections. South is thinking music of the highest order, ideal for unearthing a memory or two from the mental back catalog.