I always hated just about every band at my high school, which probably accounts for why I was only recently introduced to Pale Balverines even though I've known lead singer Christopher Kurtz for a healthy decade. I'd heard good things about them in school--the main compliment being that they are a real band (there is a difference between a high school band and a real band). Well, for once, the rumors are accurate.
The Balverines' first release is a 6-song EP entitled Farther Than the Dock Can Take You. The first song, “Everything My Heart Knows it Learned on Tralflamdore [sic]” does dynamics right, with eerie spacey-sounding quiet verses and massive distortion-ridden choruses. The song highlights everything that is good about the band; Kurtz's earnest, yearning vocals, mixed with thoughtful guitar work courtesy of original lead guitar player, Nick Coamey, who was replaced by Sam Clarke-Mchale during the sessions for the EP (Clarke-Mchale played Coamey's parts on almost every song, including this one).
The absolute standout track is the fifth, "Chasing Pikes," a seven-minute indie rock epic which is the only track that Coamey played on before being replaced by Clarke-Mchale, and it shows. The lead guitar has a shimmering U2-ish quality that is lost on the other tracks and compliments Kurtz's metallic rhythm perfectly. The song uses fishing as a metaphor for...something, but Kurtz's vocals, dripping with emotion at every word, make whatever it is sound completely heartfelt. The song builds slowly into a huge climax, and the payoff is grand.
The band's songwriting, while charming at times, lacks maturity, especially in its lyrical endeavors. Song titles like “What Do You Do When the Invincible Armada is Vinced?” seem like bad inside jokes, and recurring motifs (boats, European monarchs) that are not tied together in any meaningful way suggest that this is a band with ideas bigger than they can articulate (also, they misspelled “Tralfamador,” an alien planet from several Vonnegut novels). Kurtz's lyrics have a naivete to them that ends up being very hit-or-miss, sometimes combining with his voice to create an effect of passionate innocence, and sometimes an air of blatant pretension.
Each song is worthwhile in its own way (especially “The Almost King Leopold,” which features a great chorus), but the album's failure is in its lo-fi production. The only pieces of Noah Gilmore's drum kit that are audible are the hats and snare, and one could wonder if the band even has a bass player--not to impugn Isaac Shorsher's ability, but the bass is mixed into nothingness most of the time. There's a time for lo-fi, but the Balverines' music is too ambitious and anthemic for it to really work here.
Hopefully the Pale Balverines have it together enough to stick around after high school. They are a group of talented musicians who create good, fresh-sounding music together, and if Farther Than the Dock Can Take You is any indication, they might have a successful career ahead of them.
Check out more record reviews:Yourself and the Air - Who's Who in the Zoo