The saxophones evoke passion but the mood is more equivocal on 2013's Swim, the fourth full-length album from Portland, Oregon quintet Blue Cranes and their first for the Cuneiform label. Reed Wallsmith on alto and Joe Cunningham on tenor carry the melodic hooks but also wail and howl over the midtempo rockish rhythms of supple acoustic bassist Keith Brush and drummer Ji Tanzer and the sometimes dark unfoldings of Rebecca Sanborn's keyboards, augmented here and there by a string trio or quartet. This is an album with a back-story of life-changing events -- deaths of friends, weddings, new life -- and although Swim is entirely instrumental and thus avoids telling explicit stories, the significance of these events seems clear in music that is somehow both melancholic and affirming. The album begins with the Cunningham-penned "Beautiful Winners," a heavy but nevertheless catchy tune and one of only two on the disc with the core quintet unaccompanied by guest artists. Despite some tricky, angular stops and starts from the rhythm section, it's really an indie rock-styled tune with saxes standing in for singers, with a melody you might find yourself humming later. Among the writing and arranging touches that leaven the track's mood, the glockenspiel-like voicings on the bridge are a nice contrast with Sanborn's low-down distorted keys elsewhere.
"Everything Is Going to Be Okay" begins even heavier and more dirgelike than the opening track, but in a pattern not unlike music heard elsewhere on the album, moves deliberately toward a form of tentative and fleeting uplift. After an increasingly intense saxophone solo over a steady cruising vamp, Cunningham and Wallsmith beautifully complement one another with contrapuntal lines over Sanborn's circular chords. The string quartet of violists Eyvind Kang and Kyleen King, violinist Patti King, and cellist Anna Fritz had been employed coloristically midway through, and as the track ends, Blue Cranes' nearly anthemic build rather abruptly fades into the unaccompanied strings, signaling something more measured than a wholly triumphant conclusion. "Great Dane Small Horse," which briefly shines a spotlight on Kang during its intro, also ascends expansively, but in its case, takes a sudden turn toward darkness with several full-ensemble pounds on an incongruously dissonant chord at the finish. A similar mechanistic pulse is stretched out across the entire length of the guest musician-laden "Cass Corridor" (a Portlandian take on the district in Detroit?), whose relentlessness -- albeit for only four minutes -- almost suggests that the leader of another Cuneiform band, Roger Trigaux of Present, was invited in to conduct. And while the nine-minute "Painted Birds" initially features its own insistent throb, the tune's climax coalesces out of the album's most purely improvisational interlude, moving decidedly away from the indie rockish impulses heard elsewhere. An album highlight for the improvised music fan, "Painted Birds" is followed by album-closer "Goldfinches," another strong track with perhaps Swim's deepest melancholy through guest Cooper McBean's singing saw but, at the very end, a tiny bit of optimism that seems unconditional.