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Crescent - Little Waves

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Artist: Crescent

Album: Little Waves

Label: FatCat

Review date: Sep. 27, 2007

Crescent have always been an unsettling listen. Their earliest Planet releases were of a kin with the gloriously noisy soundscapes of fellow Bristol rockers Flying Saucer Attack, but with a distinctly horrific twist. Rather than strike FSA’s off-kilter balance or provide a warm retreat like, say, My Bloody Valentine, Crescent’s early noise was both sharper and, when juxtaposed with Matt Jones’ eerily detached speak-singing, more threatening. This edge was honed on their third release, Collected Songs, which is, setting aside apples-and-oranges comparisons, my pick for best rock album of the past 10 years. By whittling their space rock down to vaguely industrial jazz loops, Crescent allowed Jones opportunities to assert himself. That he rarely did lent his more emotive moments an almost unbearable power, climaxing with screams of “We will know our hearts” over white organ noise for the album’s final two minutes. The follow-up, 2003’s By the Roads and the Fields, flipped the page to a more organic sound and cleaner production, but kept Collected Songs’ sense of menace – “Straight Line” has some of the sparsest, most terrifying use of dub techniques that you’re likely to hear coming from nice British white folks.

Four years later, with nary a sound from sister group Movietone and other side projects, Crescent are back. Little Waves is fascinating as an evolutionary marker, but as a stand-alone listen, it’s a bit of a let down. The trend towards cleaner production and an increased focus on Jones’ voice has reached an apex, with the tone of Jones’ confessionals comparable to Jason Pierce’s, of all people.

This is not a good thing. Jones has never been as direct as the Spaceman, and he certainly isn’t here, but it’s a similar level of intimacy, and while this is not necessarily a poor tack for Crescent to take, it’s certainly not playing on their strengths of building mood and atmosphere. This forces an evaluation of Crescent as pure songwriters, and, unfortunately, the majority of the tracks aren’t very distinct. Many of these folk-tinged songs could have easily sprung up on a Songs of Green Pheasant or Marissa Nadler album, a depressing statement to make about a group that were able to carve out such a unique sound. Parts of By the Roads hinted at this push towards pure songcraft, and Movietone have richly mined similar territory, but Little Waves lacks the inventiveness of the former and the keenly developed melodic sense of the latter, not to mention Kate Wright’s gorgeous Moe Tucker vocals.

There are some bright spots spread throughout. “Drift” is the closest that Jones comes to approximating his old vocal style, and, unsurprisingly, it’s one of the album’s more successful tracks. Conversely, “Before” is the album’s most baldly melodic track, and it’s refreshing to just hear a great band play, unadorned, with simple horn charts and pleasantly noodling guitar lines.

And the album’s final track is a doozy, reaffirming faith in Crescent as brilliant manipulators of mood and recording technique. On the surface, “Our River” is not very far removed from the dark folk of the rest of the album. The acoustic guitar, the horns, and the tape cracks here are found elsewhere, but Jones fucks up his voice something royal, turning folk music’s ideals of intimacy and connection against themselves. The theatricality would have me laughing if it weren’t so creepily intense. It sounds as if the Jones of Collected Songs had been dragged into the desert and deprived of water. Forget folk music’s beauty and ability to connect and express. Do you really want to get closer?

By Brad LaBonte

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By the Roads and the Fields

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