[ATMOSPHERE] Arena Rock Records is on a roll. A string of solid-to-excellent releases means a trust has been built. Anything released on this label is worth a listen. But even Arena Rock's diverse catalog didn't prepare us for a new record from Saudade, a Portland duo known for moody, atmospheric soundscapes and ambient noise.
Saudade's latest, Lookouts' Journal, is perhaps the most leftfield Arena Rock release to date, occupying a vast stylistic space between the epic instrumentals of Explosions in the Sky and the warm experimentia of like-minded local acts like Grouper and Jackie-O Motherfucker.
As it happens, Journal is a departure even for Saudade itself, which has grown more amorphous and organic since its previous full-length, The Hooded Ones. These are less songs than movements: Though one can make out guitar-picking on the somber, moving "Accumulation" and feedback paired with ghostly vocals on the spacey "Interstate Bridge Song," most tracks are walls of screeching and scrawling. Sorta like My Bloody Valentine without any structure—with only hints of percussion and a spinal column of sonic loops to serve as waypoints for the listener. One wonders how these walls were constructed (lots of knobs, presumably), but Saudade's Jason Gray and Chris Cantino prefer to keep it a mystery—Journal's minimal liner notes don't disclose its instrumentation.
It's an unnerving first listen, one best served with accompanying visuals (I wonder if the duo would feel weird about my using their disc to soundtrack a few hours of Modern Warfare 2?). But for all Saudade's experimentation, each track retains a distinct mood all its own. So somewhere around the fourth or fifth listen, the rattlesnakes and church bells of closer "Remote Possession" become as familiar as a great pop hook. Maybe that's what Arena Rock heard in it, too. In any case, the streak continues. CASEY JARMAN.
[FUTURE POP] It doesn't take much of a listen to Laura Veirs' lovely, wilting July Flame to realize that it's her best work. From the first few strums of the chiming opener "I Can See Your Tracks" to the Tosca String Quartet outro of "Make Something Good," July Flame presents Veirs' songwriting in its most basic, crystalline form.
Veirs has always been a writer of fictions, weaving sprightly tales of nature and relationships through a kaleidoscope of chugging folk-pop songs on 2007's Saltbreakers. But on the new record, Veirs—along with her beau, producer Tucker Martine—strips many of the layers off her songs to revel in a newfound clarity.
That's where we find Veirs on "I Can See Your Tracks." Writing in first person, the song is a mission statement from someone too frequently tagged with the dreaded Nice Songwriter Syndrome. "Oh I can see your tracks/ But I won't follow them/ I'll just hope for rain/ Or some kind of crazy wind," Veirs sings behind the sparsest arrangement (just two acoustic guitars and vocals) and best melody of her career. Halfway through, Jim James of My Morning Jacket cuts in with some wolf-cry background howling, but it never takes away from the striking simplicity and sentiment of the song.
And it's the songs—13 gorgeous, shifting and catchy ones—that make July Flame the (really) early contender for best album of 2010. Veirs gets help from a handful of friends (including previous collaborators Chris Funk and James), and the subtle background harmonies of the underrated Karl Blau transform "Life is Good Blues" from a charming lament into one of the catchiest tracks in recent memory. Still, you get the feeling Veirs doesn't need the help. This time around, the songs stand up on their own. MICHAEL MANNHEIMER.
SEE IT: Saudade releases Lookouts' Journal on Tuesday, Dec. 8, at Holocene, with Stiffwiff, Jozef van Wissem and Pete Swanson. 8 pm. $6. Laura Veirs plays Friday and Saturday, Dec. 4 and 5, at the Wonder Ballroom, with Blind Pilot. 8 pm. $13 advance, $15 day of show. Friday is all ages, Saturday 21+. July Flame won't be released until Jan. 12, but you can order it now at ravenmarchingband.com.