For a band about to properly release their debut album, the web contains a wealth of information on Freelance Whales. Whether you read a review or an interview, there are a few elements present in every piece. They will all mention the creative instrumentation (banjo, harmonium, glockenspiel), they will all comment on the band’s affinity for performing on the streets of New York, and they will all be overwhelmingly positive. You can imagine my disappointment (and slight terror) when I listened to Weathervanes and not only didn’t like it, but hated it. How could all this buzz be wrong? Conversely, how could I be wrong? Clearly, there has to be something I am missing, right? Well, after about a dozen listens, I still don’t get it.
Start with the “creative” instrumentation. Has anyone been listening to the same indie rock I have for the past ten years? These instruments are not only commonplace in the rock world, they are over-used and practically cliche at this point. Furthermore, when you do hear, say, a banjo, whether it be Okkervil River or Megafaun or Sufjan Stevens, the artist usually plays it pretty damn well. Freelance Whales promote the fact that they are playing new instruments on Weathervanes, and, well, it sounds like it. From the opening riff of “Generator^First Floor”, the banjo plays bare-bones riffs that seem only included so that a banjo might make the song more authentic or unique. As for the band performing as street musicians, well, that’s neat I guess, but also gimmicky. Anyone who has internet access can see pretty much any band they like play street musician on La Blogoteque. Yes, I would be impressed to walk down a city street and hear “Location” (the band’s best song). But, I’d probably be impressed to hear any professional musician on the street. But, that doesn’t mean their album would be any good.
Now there are three artists you will hear about when people talk about Freelance Whales. The Postal Service is the most obvious one. Most of the songs employing synth leads are as one dimensional and simplistic as The Postal Service. Also, lead singer Judah Dedone sounds like Ben Gibbard. Like, a lot. Listen to the arrangement of “Starring” or the science-from-a-non-scientist lyrics of “Kilojoules” and The Postal Service influence becomes clear. This lumps them with the second group you will hear in these discussion, Owl City. Now, I can’t speak to Owl City’s worth. I’ve only heard “that Owl City song,” but what disturbs me is how these two bands can so heavily cop a sound from a group that a.) wasn’t a real band but a side-project, b.) wasn’t really taken seriously at the time c.) are less than ten years old and d.) weren’t even considered worth pursuing for future albums by the group’s songwriter. We all enjoyed The Postal Service record. It was fun, light, cheesy, and nostalgic. But, the lyrics were laughable and melodies were simple. Somehow, though, teenagers listening at the time have taken it as something more and decided to emulate it. Nothing is as discouraging in a band as shitty taste in music.
The last artist you will hear in comparisons is Sufjan Stevens. I don’t get this one at all, except maybe the banjo. This is unfair to Stevens, a songwriter of lyrical brilliance and complex arrangements. It is hard to imagine Sufjan Stevens using terms like “giving a solid” or “player hater” as Freelance Whales do in “Hannah”. In fact, the lyrics throughout the record struggle to resonate, but become clearer when you find out that it’s a concept album revolving around an infatuation with a ghost-like woman. This isn’t even the most interesting concept for a concept album to come out in the last month (Civil War double album anyone?) and only makes it so the songs don’t work or make much sense out of this context. In an interview, songwriter Judah Dadone even admits that lyrics are his weak point as a musician. So, from playing instruments they don’t really know, to creating ambitious lyrical projects when they aren’t particularly good writers, did they ever stand a chance? Either ambition is their downfall, or it’s their taste level.
Parts of Weathervanes do show promise though. “Location” is an affecting song, and the only one which I could put aside my annoyance at The Postal Service similarity and admit they were actually pulling it off. Plus, the opening minute of the album did get me pumped up, at least until the vocals started. The seeming mass appeal of this album makes me feel like a grinch, but I rely on my lame-dar to navigate me through the murky waters of rock these days. Unfortunately, we are at the Seven Mary Three stage of a sound made famous by Bright Eyes and Death Cab for Cutie, the Nirvanas of wimpy, post-2000 indie. But kids can be fooled. Hell, it will probably be huge.