(Self-released, digital download)
On their 2009 debut, Green and Grey, Burlington’s Whales and Wolves offered a suite of rough sketches. Though showing promise, the album underwhelmed with seemingly half-finished tunes that lacked dynamic punch or sonic variance. These were indie-folk skeletons with no real personality or substantive weight. On their newly released follow-up EP, Up to the Ground, Whales and Wolves adjust for both style and scope. Beginning to unearth their identity, they offer fleshed-out material that owes as much to country-rock pioneers the Band as to the moody musings of Conor Oberst and the bright polyphony of Delta Spirit and Fleet Foxes.
“Never Know (Whoa, Nelly)” marks a slow start. While the simmering, back-porch groove is immediately more compelling than any arrangement on the band’s debut, the writing is listless, the vocal phrasing stilted. However, the harmony interplay between Ethan McBrien and co-songwriter Nyiko Beguin helps elevate the song above contrived country-rock fare and hints at some of the strengths to come.
“Wait on Me” is an ambitious song that offers some genuinely compelling moments — especially the ghostly bridge three minutes in, which builds to a strong closing chorus. But the song’s potential impact is weakened by inconsistent instrumental performances. In particular, the central, Dead-ish piano-guitar riff never fully coalesces, and distracts from an otherwise fine song every time it comes around — which is often.
Things pick up a little on the EP’s latter half. The title track is a jittery centerpiece that bristles with raw energy — though a hackneyed, cliché-romantic bridge saps much of that youthful enthusiasm. The band finds its stride again at the finish. EP closer “Dry as It Is” is the collection’s most complete tune, and demonstrates that Whales and Wolves can put one entire good song together without stumbling. It’s a lilting, mid-tempo nugget that takes full advantage of McBrien’s quirky songwriting style and Beguin’s airy keystrokes and vocal harmonies.
Up to the Ground marks a step forward for Whales and Wolves, though it remains a frustrating work overall. At no point on the EP does the band deliver a performance worthy of its considerable talents. Instead, we find a series of flawed songs that almost get there, but fall just short for one reason or another. Here’s hoping that the third time will be the charm.
Up to the Ground by Whales and Wolves is available at whalesandwolves.us.