Shipping News

Listening to Shipping News is a bit like getting into a drunken car accident: You're not entirely sure what just happened, but you're almost certain you don't want it to happen again. The band's songs favor length: Their average duration is about six minutes, during which guitar parts clock in and out, rhythms start/stop/change, a singer quietly sings, or a plucked melody repeats until it becomes a drone. They're heady and abstract, with unusual structures, rhythms, and melodies. They're also not particularly good. Though not without hints of beauty and skill, the loudest sound is the echo of forced ambition. To one degree or another, such has also been the primary complaint against June of 44 and (especially) Rachel's, the bands from which two-thirds of SN's core trio are on loan (Jeff Mueller and Jason Noble, respectively; the pair first played together in Rodan). Like all three of those groups, this band quite obviously strives to make smart music by smart people, yet it ends up recommending neither.

The new Very Soon, and in Pleasant Company--SN's third release, following 1997's Save Everything and a split EP with MetroSchifter in 1998--presents a monument to torpor. All but one of its seven songs could be fairly described as languid, and its last three ("Quiet Victories," "Contents of a Landfill," and "How to Draw Horses") go so far as to approach traditional balladry--if one were to discount its three-minute codas. But fittingly, even these accessible moments suffer from the same problems that plague SN's more difficult songs: The band can't turn its potentially interesting parts--good rhythms, tight dynamics, or, here, nice melodies--into a worthwhile whole. A melody will present itself and go nowhere for eight minutes; an interesting drum part wastes itself behind forgettable guitar leads; and so on. The songs grab you for a few seconds, then strand you, neither inspired nor angry but increasingly uninterested. The band need not have mastered complex structures to accomplish that.

Not that Very Soon approaches fusion (unless you'd care to get picky about those guitars on "Nine Bodies, Nine States"). This is rock music, played by guitar, drums, bass, and the occasional viola/piano vibe; it attempts to be evocative and precise, but it doesn't pretend to hate itself. It's best, not surprisingly, at its most understated and simple: "Actual Blood," with its creepy guitar lead and mumbled vocal, or the first part of "How to Draw Horses." But such moments merely punctuate an album of compositions that, at very best, you'll forget to like. Shipping News' music has sometimes been called math rock, but one suspects that the band's primary calculation does not involve time signatures or tight playing, but rather that complex structures, delicate packaging, and literary pretensions equal a memorable band. Though it's fathomable that Shipping News have it in them, they haven't added it all up here.

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