On 'thallo's previous album, they incorporated some Baroque Pop influences—not enough to really break from their previous Post-Rock-y sound, but just enough for lame critics to accuse them of being Sufjan Stevens ripoffs. Well, on this album, they throw themselves headfirst into Baroque Pop. How well do they make the transition? Let's find out!
"Noni's Field": We know we're in for something different when the song begins a capella. Then, most of the song that follows is anchored by a two-note piano part, while other instruments—guitar, percussion, handclaps, voices—are layered and removed. This doesn't follow a pop-song verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure per se (in fact, I don't think any of these songs do), but there's a rhythm to the building and release of tension that's definitely reminiscent of pop. This one crescendos with some strings.
But something is missing...
"Italo": Oh yeah, the brass. You know, one of the defining features of their prior albums; for some reason it doesn't show up on this album until track 2.
"Northern Lights": Most of this song has no beat. I'm glad that these guys didn't reuse the same formula for every song on the album, but I'm not sure this particular variation really works.
"The River": Best song on this album. On paper, this has nearly all the same elements as the opening track, but the crescendo is drawn out a bit more, and there's a cello solo, and some honest-to-goodness percussion (reminiscent of the end of A Holiday at Sea, in fact), so the overall effect is even more joyful.
Which is odd, because the lyrics are about a near-death experience that Erica Froman's mother had.
"Cafetorium": Heh, the "chorus" on this one sounds so indie-pop. What makes this number is the imposing brass in the second half.
"Sleeping Torpor": Here's a 'thallo first—Erica gets some prominent vocal parts. In fact, I think she's got some Self-Backing Vocalist shenanigans going on.
"All the First Pages": Funny story: I saw 'thallo live, touring to support this album. They introduced this song by explaining that it was about an incident where Neil Armstrong, future astronaut, lost his ring finger to a grain truck. Then they started playing, and the very first words were:
"John J. Audubon": Really, this is the most bombastic track on the album. And it's purely because of the vocal delivery.
And the fact that this is them at their most bombastic just goes to show how much they've mellowed out since the old days.
"Bells": The vocals here are a lot like on "Northern Lights", but there's also strings and... um... some other percussion instrument whose name I can't remember. These give the song a bit more structure, so the vocals have free license to fly all over the place.
"Tower of Babel": Another beat-deficient song. This doesn't do anything, it's just kind of there.
Overall, this is great stuff, and Anathallo pulled off their New Sound Album remarkably well. It's funny that the songs sound a lot poppier than their prior efforts, but the song structures honestly aren't that different from their prior albums, just shorter. I would say this is a better album than Floating World. How does it stack up against Sparrows or A Holiday at Sea? Well, it's not a fair comparison to make, because this is Baroque Pop and those were Post-Rock(ish)... but I'll make it anyway. The old stuff was better.
This was their last album. Anathallo went on an indefinite hiatus in 2010.
If you only listen to one track, listen to: "The River", natch. Or maybe "Bells".