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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Tuesday Is For Tunes: Freelance Whales


This week’s featured band is Freelance Whales, because they’ve somehow managed to mix a banjo and glockenspiel with microKORG-made ambient, electronica without sounding like they’re trying at all. I’ll tentatively give the credit to their use of a harmonium, and their busking attitude to towards performing. I know it sounds like I just described the highly improbable, if not the impossible, but I have heard it. Oh believe me, I have heard it.

Remarkably, Freelance Whales manages to arrange this myriad of noises tactfully enough that they still sound simple and endearing. Their music is well textured, but built in a way that allows you to savor each sound. My ears can easily pick out the banjo riffs in Generator 1st Floor and appreciate them individually, and then appreciate them even more as they weave their way through the rest of the song. Other times they blend unlikely noises together so smoothly that you find yourself really appreciating novel new sound, like the glockenspiel/microKORG mix in the bridge of Starring, coupling warm bell tones with harsher drum machine beats. Or more generally, the harmonium/synthesizer mix is stupendous. All the oscillating buzz of the synth, but the harmonium adds some life to the electric, mechanical tone. That seems to be sort of the essence of this band. They sound like the moment in The Wizard of Oz when the Tin Man got his heart. It’s all rather pleasantly surprising.

Since I grew up singing in choirs, I’m a sucker for vocals. Freelance Whales have some delicious male/female harmonies that are skillfully delivered in dreamy pop blends, as well as in tripping staccato notes, both which display a swoon-worthy level of virtuosity, at least for me. The male vocals remind me a little of John Nolan or Ben Gibbard, young, but certainly not insipid. Like with The Postal Service, the vocals are sincere enough to tug the heartstrings of the most ardent cynic even though they’re set to digital concoctions. I’m not quite sure what kids in high school are listening to these days (though I suspect it isn’t good), but this is what they should be listening too. Still, I would recommend Freelance Whales to anyone, regardless of their age, who likes their music to have a beautiful, quirky character.

I think busking is fabulous. I respect any musicians who try it, but especially if they’re carting around as many instruments as the Freelance Whales. Apparently, busking was one of the ways this band first got noticed. They were simply playing in the streets of New York City with what I’m confident was an arresting abandon. One of the reasons I love busking is that it seems reminiscent of another time and reality, a place where you sing in the streets simply because it is your calling. That is also sort of what Freelance Whales sounds like, pied pipers of a different world heralding all who listen into their realm.

In March of this year they will be releasing their album, Weathervanes, on my beloved Frenchkiss Records. I am sorely tempted to pre-order.

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