Listening back to Starlings, the home-recorded debut EP from Very Small Animal we tagged as a favorite last year (here), it’s unlikely you’d have predicted the direction this band would take. We posted our favorite track, “Golden,” because there’s a moment that caught our ear, reminding us of a similar solo on another song filed way back in the Vs, the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Set Free.” That was about as heavy as Starlings got.
But get just a few minutes into Port of Call, Very Small Animal’s new album out this weekend, and you’ll think it was a different band altogether. Well, you would if it weren’t for the unique voices that had distinguished their debut. Tim Harlan-Marks and Patrick Noonan sound better than ever on these twelve new songs, splitting the lead a little more evenly this time around, but now they’re backed by an electrified version of their band courtesy of some cohorts from the Yes! Let’s Collective: Brian Laidlaw (can’t seem to escape that fella around here lately) and Sean Geraty, drummer for Laidlaw’s Family Trade. These first two songs — the first two on Port of Call — give you an idea of the result of their collaborations.
Rather than sounding like their own version of Laidlaw’s ‘road trip’ rock, Very Small Animal reshapes the sound of Starlings into a fun new creature, faster and louder than expected. Maybe Guy Wagner’s vibrant cover art should have tipped us off. We asked Patrick Noonan about the new sound and he said some of their songs started smaller and more intimate, and grew with the larger band, and that others were written as we hear them on the disc. The second track you’re hearing in today’s post, “Wolf,” was written by Harlan-Marks with its “multi-harmony, sort of choral second half” but picked up its driving backbeat after bringing it into practice session with Laidlaw and Geraty. A little bit of their folksy beginnings survive, and a little of bit of 90s alt-country and indie rock creeps in — The combination is really successful.
Nowhere is this more clear than in Harlan-Marks’ “Korea.” This is the disc’s stand-out track, though hardly suited to be its single. It will be the song you put on a mix tape. It’s big but not bombastic, pairing the sound of Uncle Tupelo with the wearier desperation of American Music Club. Harlan-Marks is captivating, though this is one of several tracks on the disc that buries the lead a little too low in the mix. You’ll strain your ear a little to hear him — filled with conviction one moment and, like the Erickson’s Bethany Valentini, faltering in the fade of his voice the next. Laidlaw and Geraty provide the perfect accompaniment.
Patrick Noonan’s “One Propeller” and “Baptize Me, Andre” have the more familiar sound of singles. Both are great pop tunes. “One Propeller” seems to glide on air, pushed forward by Noonan’s persistent rhythm and given lift from Laidlaw’s lead. It’s simpler and sweeter sentiment is different from his other songs on Port of Call, point in case the tragic “Baptize Me, Andre,” a great story song with an awesome guitar part, although this is one of the songs which Noonan tells us started out smaller and more intimate before they started arranging it with the band.
Baptize me, Andre
“Baptize Me, Andre”
Very Small Animal has expanded its sound but underneath it’s still very much Harlan-Marks and Noonan. Noonan’s really come into his own since Starlings, his rich voice and phrasing are awesomely distinct — Sometimes brooding, as on the first track, “Buried Alive,” and sometimes crooning, as on the endearing title track where he sounds like a warmer Morrissey. Harlan-Marks, who writes and sings more leads than before on Port of Call, shows surprising range on tracks as different as “Wolf” and “Korea.”
Port of Call was recorded at the same (now gone) Albion Studio in Northeast where the White Whales recorded their exception debut, Lakestate, but it lacks the stunning sound of that disc. The raw, almost ad hoc feel of Port of Call is largely beneficial, lending an unexpected cohesion to the varied tracks, but also distracting. It feels like the up-and-down production of Let it Be, and there’s moments where we wish we could hear Harlan-Marks or Noonan better, or where the ground loop buzz is distracting. This also leads to some pleasant surprises, like the appearance of a weirdly psychedelic trombone in “Shutters Setting Free,” which creates a welcome throw-back sound last heard, around these parts anyway, on Panther Ray’s awesome little EP Daily Season.
In our short write-up of Starlings last year we mentioned there’s an intensity to Very Small Animal’s live performances that gets lost on record — You’ll find a better description in this review of their release show for that quiet EP, written by Andrea Swennson for the Current’s local music blog. This all contributes to our assumption that the release show for Port of Call is sure to be something very special indeed.
Very Small Animal will celebrate the release of their first full-length album, Port of Call, at the Icehouse this Saturday. Red Daughters and the one and only DJ Tickle Torture will be joining them. Details here.