October 07, 2004

Victory at Sea "Memories Fade"

Listening to a Victory at Sea record can be like tasting a meal by a friend of yours who just happens to be an above-average amateur chef --- a meal that you enjoy but don’t quite savor. Even though it may have too much or too little of a certain ingredient, it’s still good enough to eat. You don’t criticize it too harshly because you want to get invited back to the house the next time he/she cooks, just in case the next one ends up being better. Over the last five years, Victory at Sea has been slowly inching toward perfection, with two main hindrances keeping the band from the brass ring. One is that singer/songwriter Mona Elliott occasionally couldn’t tell the difference between “minimal” and “underwritten.” The other is that Victory at Sea runs through drummers almost as frequently as Spinal Tap. This high turnover rate has negatively affected the band’s instrumental chemistry, especially in the studio. Fortunately, their fourth full-length Memories Fade goes a long way toward rectifying both of these problems.

As usual, Victory at Sea underwent significant lineup changes before recording their latest album. First of all, they switched drummers AGAIN, and it seems as if the fourth time’s the charm. David Miller Norton finds the perfect middle ground between original drummer Christina Files’ jazzy shuffling and second drummer Fin Moore’s showiness (a trait that made 2000’s Carousel album sound like Keith Moon drumming for Low). It helps that, unlike on their last album The Good Night (the second half of which was almost entirely drum-less), the band actually lets Norton play! Second of all, the band adopted Taro Hatanaka, who played violin on one Good Night song, as a permanent member. Last but not least, bassist Mel Lederman put away his bass and is now the band’s keyboardist. In Victory at Sea version 4.0, Elliott, Lederman and Hatanaka wrap so many melodies and riffs around each other that you don’t even notice the lack of bass. Their sound is actually fuller now than it’s ever been! Mona Elliott sweetens the deal by turning in her best vocals to date. She has always had the huskiest alto in indie-rock, but now she isn’t afraid of hitting the high notes and letting us hear the catch in her voice. Her newfound confidence does wonders for even the weakest songs on Memories Fade.

As befits the album’s title, the songs revolve around nostalgia (“Animals and the Weather“), decaying relationships (“Break of Day“), impatience and wanderlust. The couple in “Love Is Ageless” pray that they’ll be able to maintain the love of their youth even as they grow older. The protagonist of “Games” puts on a stoic front in order to mask her turbulent emotional state. “Logan Way” sports the best kiss-off to an ex I’ve heard all year: “You said you’d never leave/You were lying through your teeth/and guess what?/I appreciate it.” On “Little Town,” Mona urges her lover to leave his home in order to escape the prying eyes of small-town gossip hounds. Two songs later, on “Happy for You,” she congratulates him for actually heeding her advice. Album closer “This Life” finds Mona concisely chastising a turncoat (“With friends like you, I don’t need friends”) whom she knows is hiding a dark secret from someone else (“That night, it could have lasted longer/only if I told her”).

Surprisingly, Memories Fade is the first Victory at Sea album to have overcooked songs. Every once in a while, Mona will go on a nonsensical lyrical tangent (“All Night Superstar”) or repeat a verse a couple times too many (“Logan Way”). However, bombast suits the current lineup of Victory at Sea more than restraint does, which makes these lapses a bit more forgivable than those on previous records. Besides, the last four songs make up for the rest of the album’s excesses by being utterly shocking and totally perfect. “Little Town“ boasts numerous hooks that scream for radio airplay, “Break of Day” is a seven-minute “Hey Jude”-style crescendo, “This Time” ends in a group sing-along, and “Happy for You” actually lives up to its title! Who’d have thought that Elliott would be just as capable of composing uplifting pop songs as she is of writing wrist-slitting dirges?

With Memories Fade, Victory at Sea has fully transformed from a promising B-list band into honor roll students just a few points shy of turning that A- into an A+. Here’s hoping they keep their lineup just the way it is and bring us a fifth album soon.

--Sean Padilla

Artist Website: http://www.victoryatsea.net
Label Website: http://www.gernblandsten.com

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