The best that can be said for Belong is that it’s mostly inoffensive.
Each successive San Fermin album has a question attached to the sound. Their self-titled debut was “Who?” As in “who is this strange group that sounds like an Opera directed by Arcade Fire?” Their follow up, Jackrabbit, asked “Where? Where do they go now that they’ve infused sheer pop into the sound?” And, unfortunately Belong comes with a sighing “why?”
San Fermin’s sudden appearance was a brilliant piece of refreshment. Lead by Yale graduate Ellis Ludwig-Leone (who composed the songs) and his longtime friend Allen Tate (who lead the sound with his baritone), San Fermin made a curious mix of indie-rock and chamber music, leaning heavily on the more theatrical side of things to the album’s total benefit. Jackrabbit came after band turnover and turmoil, with three singers coming and going between albums, and had Ludwig-Leone crafting more expansive pop numbers, taking inspiration from modern radio hits and 80s synth-laden singles. It was a mixed bag as compared to the debut, but in the face of Belong it seems collected and excellent.
Jackrabbit’s biggest problems came in the form of Ludwig-Leone’s uncertainty with pop excess. The songs that sounded like Twin Shadow felt redundant, forcing the usually crafty songwriter to reach for clichés, something beneath him. But it seems like that’s all he’s pulled out for Belong. Most of the album sounds like generic Chvrches also-rans. With the rotating door of female singers the band has used, it seems like Ludwig-Leone is more comfortable with Tate’s voice and current vocalist Charlene Kaye suffers for it. Her contributions to the album can neatly be categorized as fluff. Kaye is perfectly pleasant, but none of her performances come close to memorable. “oh-ohs” “whoa-whoas” and any number of not actually lyrics flood her lines. And for a good portion of the album, these throw away noises seem to be covering up a lack of musical and thematic ideas.
But while Jackrabbit found show stopping motifs for Tate, Belong can’t even use his rich bass properly. Tate, first and foremost, is not a pop singer. He’s been compared to Matt Berninger of The National, and rock, chamber and late-night indie musings are his bread and butter. The gaudy decorations of Belong have him often working higher in his range. Mewling doesn’t suit Tate, but the title track, “Bones” and closing track “Happiness Will Ruin This Place” carries out that vocal effect to detrimental results. Ludwig-Leone has a Rolls Royce in his possession and is using it like a Prius when Tate goes from sultry to precocious.
There are brief moments of sunlight, reminders of how well Ludwig-Leone’s mind can work. The funky background of “Cairo” works, sounding like a tamer version of the mad jazz made by British group Melt Yourself Down and “Palisades/Storm” is genuinely beautiful, making its pleas of “don’t leave me at the end” tearjerking. But outside of those two, the best that can be said for Belong is that it’s mostly inoffensive. Hopefully their next album won’t ask “how are they still making music?”