Q: What do you call someone who hangs around musicians?
A: A drummer.
Of course, the above is just one of many jokes that musicians make about drummers on a daily basis. Drummers are often portrayed as the redheaded stepchildren of rock bands. However, it must be acknowledged that many bands owe much of their worth to the quality of their drummers. Consider three examples from the world of independent rock. Sleater-Kinneyís ascendance into greatness began when Janet Weiss (whom I like to describe as ìKeith Moon with breastsî) replaced their mediocre original drummer. The Olive Group envisioned themselves as a younger, snappier version of the Sea and Cake, but the former bandís incompetent drummer ensured that its music would never approach the latter bandís brilliance. Last but not least, thereís Damon Che, formerly of Don Caballero and currently in Bellini; any band that this man donates his talents to is worth at least a cursory listen.
Victory at Seaís entire discography is a case study on how crucial drummers can be in a rock bandís sound. So far, theyíve recorded each of their albums with a different drummer, and although terse, tense rock has always remained their M.O., there are still minor differences between each album and its predecessors. Christina Files played on their 1999 debut, The Dark is Just the Night. She wasnít (and still isnít) the fastest or most technically accomplished drummer on the planet, but she knew exactly what to play at any given moment to maximize a songís emotional impact. Her rhythms dragged, but they were the perfect backdrop against front woman Mona Elliottís moping and moaning. After Christina left last year to work with Mary Timony, the band recorded Carousel with Fin Moore (whom I like to describe as ìJanet Weiss without breastsî). Finís playing was so speedy and limber that for the first time, one could actually mosh to the bandís songs.
When Carl left the band shortly after Carouselís release, I feared for the bandís future, as I couldnít imagine their material sounding nearly as good without him. Although the bandís third album, The Good Night, partially confirms my suspicions, it is still worth checking out. The press kit for this album states that their current drummer, Carl Eklof, ìhad arrived, emoting like original drummer Files but also pushing the envelope like Moore did.î To me, this sounds like a fancy way of saying that heís better than the former, but not quite as good as the latter; at the very least, that sums up my assessment of his playing. However, Eklof doesnít get much of a chance to make an impression, as most of the second half of this album is drum-less. Overall, this is Victory at Seaís most subdued collection of songs yet. This doesnít work entirely to their benefit, but it would be wise to mention the albumís positives first.
The Good Night starts off very strong. Although the focus remains on Monaís world-weary vocals, elliptical lyrics, and deliberate guitar strumming, the mix is tastefully augmented by violin, trumpet, and piano. I am happy to note that after recording this album, the band added a full-time violinist to its lineup. ìMary in June,î a paean to a bored, isolated friend, climaxes with a chorus in which Monaís voice and Taro Hatanakaís violin compete to see which instrument weep louder. Mona has become more courageous as a performer, reaching for notes that one wouldnít normally expect her husky voice to hit, and it adds a sense of drama to some of the songs that borders on camp. ìCanyonî is an extended metaphor about two people who keep shutting each other out of their lives. In ìOld Harbor,î Mona uses class disparity as an illustration of how rarely the grass ends up being greener on the other side. ìBorn and raised at the minimum cost,î she sings; ìPut us on a bus to a separate place/we found out itís the same fucked up place.î ìProper Timeî is a final goodbye to an old friend that sounds more stern than sad, and ìSunny Daysî critiques people who never notice trouble until it stares them in the face. All of the aforementioned songs rank as album highlights.
The second half of the record, however, could have seriously used Finís overplaying to spruce things up. "A Song for Brianî is nothing more than two chords and wistful small talk: ìItís nice to hear/youíre feeling better/youíre getting married/your brotherís fineÖî ìKellyís Landingî is a directionless instrumental that canít decide whether it wants to be a piano fugue or a field recording. Album closer ìFireflyî wastes an evocative vow of vengeance towards an ex-lover on a chord progression so basic that I keep waiting for someone to play ìChopsticksî on the piano before the song ends. Some songs on Carousel also suffered from an inability to tell the difference between spare and underwritten, but you could always let yourself be distracted by Finís endless soloing. Thereís no such relief to be found on The Good Night. Nonetheless, once Victory at Sea actually settle on a lineup, they can work on developing a more fleshed-out approach to songwriting, and as the best songs on all three of their albums indicate, the results should be uniformly stellar.