I give all the credit in the world to this band’s publicist. Instead of holding them at gunpoint and forcing them to choose a less horrible name than Or, the Whale, she’s still working Light Poles and Pines roughly a year after it was released. That’s dedication, people. I love to mock publicists, partly because I hired one once, and she appeared to believe I was paying her mainly to call her boyfriend, but if you’ve got something that needs publicizin’, you may wish to inquire as to the availability of Pigeon O’Brien.
Now, about this band.
When a group of musicians takes its name from Melville and poses for sepia-tinted publicity photos, then uses phrases like “Carter family chemistry” and “whiskey-soaked” in its press materials, they create a certain set of expectations; for instance, I unwrapped Light Poles and Pines expecting to hear a nicely Band-esque set of songs from a bearded throng of foot-stomping, redneck alcoholics, and, well…long story short: This is not that kind of album.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t quickly point out that these songs do boast a strong backwoods flavor; the band does, after all, include a full-time pedal steel player, and Light Poles and Pines is heavy with banjo, accordion, and lightly twangy vocals. Personally, though, I take my roots rock with a few cups of grease and several tablespoons of grit, and Or, the Whale’s sound lacks either ingredient. This isn’t to say the band is guilty of excess polish or production, but they fall squarely on the light and pretty end of the Americana spectrum; even off-kilter ballads like “Crack a Smile” (download) tend to soothe where they should swing, and float when I wish they’d settle down and rock a little. I don’t know if this is by design or just a byproduct of the band’s San Francisco roots, but Light Poles and Pines never approaches the “barn dance” its press kit promises — Or, the Whale has more in common with AC-leavened alt-country outfits like the late, lamented Mysteries of Life than, say, the Felice Brothers.
This really isn’t a bad thing; in fact, I’ve been listening to this CD almost exclusively for the past couple of days, and I’m not sick of it yet. But I can’t stop wishing the band had unleashed some of its apparently formidable live energy here. Here’s hoping that, next time out, Or, the Whale discards the layer of gauze that surrounds this album and breaks out the corn whiskey. I’ll be at the front of the line, ready to raise a dirty mason jar or three.