In the Pink
Seekonk’s second is a perfect sculpture of sound
Any group of musicians can get together, ramp up the beats per minute, and impress a crowd of onlookers with a barrage of notes. It’s basically the central tenet of modern bluegrass. But only a finely tuned band can play slowly and keep people interested. That’s much of the explanation for Ocean’s success, and it’s what makes Seekonk their fey equivalent.
On their second album, Pinkwood, Seekonk live up to every inch of their quietest-supergroup-in-Portland reputation. It is a cohesive, expertly played, endearing work of art that gets better each time you play it and, like an oil painting from across the room, reveals more and more with closer inspection.
Listening to this on anything other than headphones borders on abomination. The instruments envelope you in a warm blanket of sound, vocals sometimes so closely mic’d you can hear as many as three vocalists at once open their individual mouths, identifying each by their tongue parting from palate with a pop of saliva. Some of that is thanks to producer Jonathan Wyman, who also turned the knobs on their debut For Barbara Lee (Kimchee Records), but most of the credit has to go to Seekonk’s singular vision for their music, which is uncompromising and distinct (it’s also almost hard to believe considering everyone’s side projects: Satellite Lot, An Evening With and Baltic Sea are top of mind and all excellent).
To practice this stuff, I swear they’d have to live together in a biosphere.
“Love,” “Armstrong,” and “Air,” which open the new album, might have your standard rock fan jumping ship. All three are slow as the dust under your couch, laconic and narcotic, living inside the harmony between Sarah Ramey’s lead vocals and multi-instrumentalists Todd Hutchisen and Dave Noyes’s backing. There’s no shortage of notes, though, with classical guitars mixing with theremin or something played backwards to keep you slightly off balance. The organ that introduces “Armstrong” might remind you of Tree by Leaf’s “Rubert Sheldrake,” but a more appropriate reference might be a song played by a pop band like As Fast As, only at half-time.
“Powerout” is where the album really gets going. Like something off Sonic Youth’s Sonic Nurse, an electric guitar stands at the fore, drums played in traditional rock fashion, and Ramey’s voice has bite to it. “Say I’m faded,” she purrs as part of the chorus like a dare, “say I’m power shutting down.” No, they’re only getting started.
“Mar” follows with digital sound effects that prop up that indie technique of playing two notes on the guitar over and over, then moving elsewhere on the fretboard and playing two different notes over and over. Regardless, things get downright sped up, with Jason Ingalls tapping the high-hat like a kid with restless leg syndrome at a Susan Colllins speech on homeland security. My only disappointment here is the tease that is the distorted guitar, living just below the surface of the song.
The song is like Pinkwood’s a mid-afternoon cup of coffee.
“Take My Wife” follows, the best song on the disc. It enters with a flamenco vibe, the drums kind of rawhide, Ramey talking about seeing your father kill a man in her lowest growl on the album, almost Cowboy Junkies, but not exactly “Ghost of a Texas Ladies Man.” Is this a divorce song? “You’ll remain in this place I call hell.” Still, Ramey is as sexy as I’ve ever heard her when the band cuts out and she breathes at a fast clip: “With this motion in your sleep you must be dreaming.”
At one point in the five-minute tune, the mood darkens further and what seems like the whole band starts in with a chant like something you heard at that KKK meeting in O Brother Where Art Thou?. Something about it couldn’t be more Pat Corrigan, who for me is the band’s energy. It’s straight-up creepy.
So’s the crispness of the transition between the charming and lilting guitars that follow as the start of “Orange & Blue” and the song’s chorus, where Ramey busts out a set of pipes her normal whisper didn’t let you know she had. The chunked guitars, crashing drums, and blaring organ are jarring, but not uncomfortable. No, Seekonk save that feeling for an industrial clanging that makes up the bridge.
Finally on the near perfectly programmed 40-minute disc, “The Great Compromise” serves as a kiss goodbye. It’s a bossa nova, a la Getz’s “Girl from Ipanema,” and a song you could easily play 100 times in a row and not get sick of. One would wonder if it was an offshoot of Noyes’s time in Dulce de Leche if one wasn’t picturing Ramey in a red sequined dress and a lot of big hair.
They’re cinematic as a band, with big panning shots and tight direction. Pinkwood is a place you can see as much as hear.