Soundtrack To A Normal Life
By: Eric Greenwood
This Charlotte, North Carolina quintet fuses eerie electronics with ambient, dub textures, African polyrhythms, and a standard rock set up, creating a woozy, somewhat indulgent atmosphere akin to the sample-heavy output on the Mute Records roster, circa 1995. Baleen isn"t necessarily interested in melody, but it"s there if you look hard enough. The band seems far more absorbed in manipulating soundscapes and fusing them together in seemingly disparate contexts than anything else. This grows tiresome after a while, yielding its share of hollow experiments, but the advanced musicianship prevents too many dead ends.
With three singers, the band has several vocal registers that it toys with, ranging from falsetto to strange, white-bred soul inflections. The quirky guitar interplay on "Sweetspot" mixes well with the dark keyboards, but the diva-esque falsetto sounds out of place and forced, as though the singer were in such a hurry to show off his chops that he forgot to make them fit into the song. The somewhat cringe-worthy attempt at soul on "Unmedicated" builds into a much-improved falsetto. The influence of Radiohead looms large here; however, Baleen lacks the musical friction required to propel itself out of copycat status. Good ideas are present but just far enough out of reach that the band cannot capitalize on them.
Baleen"s musical schizophrenia becomes obvious by the time "Take A Number" rolls around. It sounds like an outtake from Love And Rockets" trippy ode to The Beatles, Earth Sun Moon. Lyrically, the band mines muddled, introspective territory. Still, it"s the best song of the album. Quickly obliterating the momentum, however, is the cover of Beethoven"s "Moonlight Sonata." Taking an instantly recognizable Beethoven melody and adding dark synth-effects is always ill advised, but Baleen throws caution to the wind by pompously flaunting its eclectic musical palate in this highly embarrassing, inessential detour.
The acoustic guitar may sound jovial on "Muted" but the eerie sound effects drape it in a gothic cape. Again the singer unwisely pursues his soul-side vocally, which is befuddling given the context of the music. "Driving Song" reveals an unforeseen penchant for prog-rock not to mention an ace Cars-like keyboard intro. If not for the DJ scratching, this song just might work. The acoustic-electronic-tomfoolery of "Perfect" is the bane of Baleen"s existence, as it exemplifies how much more the band bites off than it can chew. Instead of half-assedly mixing five genres, how about concentrating on one, first? Baleen is a band comprised of talented musicians, but as we all know this does not always translate into good songs.
Usually, bands build up to this level of experimentation, but Baleen has unwisely tackled the tough stuff on its debut. The temptation to cover so much musical ground and make an immediate impression must be overwhelming, especially when there are countless anonymous bands nipping at your heels to take your place. However, it"s always better to be really good at one thing than adequate at several. If Baleen can refocus its attention on what it excels at instead of trying to juggle so many balls, it could probably produce music far more memorable than this.