March 10, 2004

Seekonk "For Barbara Lee"

You get to the point sometimes where you start to discredit bands like Seekonk because they’ve chosen to inhabit a genre with very little sex appeal, a genre we label-slave music reviewers gleefully refer to as “slow-core.” See, rock music is all about the guts, and so very often quiet has no guts. So when you notice that Seekonk’s For Barbara Lee starts out like the most run-of-the-mill minimalist rainy day bedroom diary filler you’ve never wanted to hear, it can be disheartening. “Move” is that opening song, and its first half of it had me nearly spastic with indifference. Lots of dead air and percussion that forgets to show up half the time. It eventually warms itself, with a co-ed vocal harmony a slight tap to the accelerator, into an actual song, but not much is promised for the remainder of the record.

What a surprise it is, then, when the second track, “Swim Again,” reveals that Seekonk was just stretching out before the game to avoid a freak injury. Slowly building into a transcendent piece involving a trombone, a men’s choir and enough grandness to belong in any amphitheater you care to name, it brings For Barbara Lee to a place that justifies the slow-core exercise. Such justification is necessary on occasion, as life can drag on mercilessly when one drearily awaits the next whispered syllable or some other pretentious nonsense.

For Barbara Lee continues from that point to accumulate countless beautiful moments. The sound of waves rolling ashore and chirping birds, and nothing else at times, make “The Delivery” what we might want to hear from a collective based in Portland, Maine. It’s the yawning cello and the delicate, hovering guitar that make it a song, though, and a striking one at that. “20 Degrees” is a part-time country sashay crossed with interludes of soaring female vocals and well-placed vibraphone, and it’s followed by “You Got What Was Coming to You,” a pleasant, well-intentioned stab at shaking some Bowdoin azzz. It’s fade out of “here comes the sun again” fits like a glove. If this was “Inside the Actor’s Studio with Seekonk,” and I James Lipton, my hand would be on Seekonk’s thigh at this point and my head tilted back in pompous laughter.

Shana Barry’s voice is a highlight all over the place. She controls “You Got What Was Coming to You” with a knowing seductiveness, and the ghost town emptiness of “Hate the Sun” is defined by Barry’s spooky restraint. During the closer “Maps of Egypt,” the plucked string intro of which conjures up the image of sunrise over a busy harbor, Barry delivers the chorus of, “Who’s crying now? / Who’s laughing now? / I tried to calm you down,” with a unique, youthful aching flooded with vitality.

This record reminds us why that disheveled, cantankerous beast we call slow-core can be as dynamic and appealing as any other genre. When the right sounds hit the right notes at the right time, speed or flashiness is an afterthought. Stateliness is your bell here, and density is your whistle. If you’ve lived enough of a life to appreciate a gray sky, then For Barbara Lee is for you.

--Andrew Ullrich

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