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Seachange - The Lay of the Land

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Artist: Seachange

Album: The Lay of the Land

Label: Matador

Review date: May. 24, 2004

Seachange opens The Lay of the Land with the most traditional of folk lyric forms: the murder ballad. At least, part of “Anglokana” is a murder ballad, and since it concerns two young lovers alone in the woods, a fairly conventional murder ballad at that. I’m uncertain about the rest of the song, though I heard something about a cultural fallout from English folk tradition in the ’60s and ’70s – it’s tough to tell through the screaming.

The song’s contrasting halves play up the distinction the group’s conflicting identities. The quiet first part consists of Dan Eastop’s vocals, acoustic guitar, and Johanna Woodnutt’s violin – let’s call it the folk side of Seachange. The second part is a full-band attack, complete with dueling three-chord guitars – we could call it post-punk, but since they’re neither as arty nor as angular as that labels implies, we’ll call it the Brit rock side of Seachange.

The movement from the delicate melodies of strings and acoustic guitars to the muscular sound of a full rock band – perhaps best evidenced on this album by the way the noise “AvsCo10” gives way to the subdued introduction to “The Nightwatch” – is supposed to be the big idea behind The Lay of the Land. Of course, the two styles are hardly inconsistent, and indeed it would be a challenge to name nearly any form of rock music that didn’t in some way grow out of folk. The album’s big idea is thus neither rare nor controversial, which takes away a lot of the light and heat from this whole endeavor.

Seachange has its share of sunshine-and-thunder songs like "Anglokana," but songs like "Glitterball" and the excellent "Carousel," both of which can be described plainly as "rock band plus violin," better represent what's really going on. They're radio-friendly hits, and the only thing difficult about them is their scuffed production. The Lay of the Land doesn’t have the omnipresent hum and scratch of a home recording, but an affectatious lo-fi buzz is present throughout, leaving supposedly ferocious moments sounding flat amidst the feedback.

The entire record seems to tread a similarly perilous middle road: it’s plenty theatrical, and tries to be upsetting at some points and rustic at others. It’s hard to get too worked up either way, however, especially when the sound turns fuzzy at all the key moments. The Lay of the Land has a few memorable songs, but it’s a lot less fierce and dramatic than it wants to be. As a straightforward rock album it almost works, doomed only by a false sense of grandeur. Songs run two minutes too long and become loud and blustery for no discernible reason, except to stretch themselves to epic proportions. Think of it like a college play: there’s an abundance of talent, and it’s just too bad that everyone involved takes themselves so seriously.

By Tom Zimpleman

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