The Wave Pictures

Beer in the Breakers

Rating: 2.3/5.0

Label: Moshi Moshi

I’m not a big fan of records that largely consist of noodling. I usually associate these sort of dull, drifting albums with jam bands, the great, unwashed sonic toreadors that can turn any fragment of melody into an endless highway of piercing violin solos and guitar riffs that double back on themselves. The version of Hell that’s been selected just for me undoubtedly includes the Dave Matthews Band performing Shoah-length version of every song in their repertoire.

But, I’m freshly reminded, this sort of musical meandering isn’t confined to bands with a penchant for song runtimes that strain the capacity of a single side of vinyl. There’s nothing initially apparent about Beer in the Breakers, the new album from the Wave Pictures, that stirs my worry. The songs seem relatively compact and the instrumentation is modest enough that it’s a surprise when a harmonica pops into the mix. And yet, much of the album is as dully directionless as the airiest space jam.

There are clear echoes of Jonathan Richman in their songs, especially as lead singer David Tattersall intones with a similar sort of loping, sly sweetness. That’s nearly enough all on its own to imbue some charm into the record. Emulation can only carry things so far, however. Before long, a lack of flavor becomes apparent.

Too often, whatever germ of a good idea exists within a song – an agreeably slippery tempo, a clever turn of phrase – is ultimately extinguished by wan execution. “In Her Kitchen” is nice enough, for example, but it goes nowhere, as if it’s merely an excuse for the intricate but unengaging guitar solo that weighs down its middle. Like a lot of the songs on the record, it seems like the first pass at it, something the band intended to come back and flesh out but then never got around to it.

At least the upbeat songs have enough agitation to them to be distracting. When the tempo slows, things really get tough to take. “Walk the Back Stairs Quiet” may be intended to be a spooky, moving ballad, but it comes across as a languid bore, underthought and underworked. The final guitar note practically sighs ‘good enough’ as it vibrates into sullen silence.

“China Whale Brand (For Hugh John Noble)” at least develops some energy; it’s one of the few songs that builds enough friction to actually generate heat. And if “Little Surprise” trades shamelessly on the same reflexive, cutesy afrobeat rhythms that stock Vampire Weekend’s shelves, it still has a welcome drive to it. The song’s briskly percolating rhythm and direct, playful lyrics (“Who are you to tell me that I look depressed / You wouldn’t know if I’m at my best“) give it a sense of fun, even discovery, that’s largely missing elsewhere.

There are 14 separate releases in the “albums and EPs” column on the band’s website, an impressively prolific number given that the Wave Pictures has only been together for a little over a decade. Given the tepidness of Beer in the Breakers, it’s perhaps worth wondering if they’ve already expended their best ideas or maybe the material is being spread too thin. Creating an abundance of music becomes far less impressive when it starts to sound like a band blandly going through the motions, just another day of running the shop.

by Dan Seeger

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