Release Date: Mar 17, 2009
Record label: Carrot Top
Genre(s): Rock, Pop
Speck Mountain's debut album owed much of its lush ambience to Mazzy Star, the seminal dream pop band that blazed a similarly trippy trail during the 1990s. Released three years later, however, Some Sweet Relief finds the group paying homage to its soulful side, particularly the Staple Singers, while maintaining the dreamy foundation that upheld 2006's Summer Above. A bluesy undercurrent runs beneath the album's puddles of organ and chiming guitar, and some of the album's best moments occur whenever that undercurrent bubbles up into the mainstream: the soul-singing coda of "Backsliding," the urban trip-hop swagger of "Angela," the neo-spiritual title track, and the flashes of Stax-styled saxophone in "I Feel Eternal.
Chisel away at soulful Chicago drone experimenters Speck Mountain and you eventually get to their core duo: founder Karl Briedrick on guitar and bass and vocalist/guitarist Marie-Claire Balabanian. While Briedrick produces artful, not too noisy drones through vintage analog gear, Balabanian's vocals have a distinctly soulful quality. [rssbreak] The end result sounds like a subdued Beth Ditto fronting a less depressing version of Godspeed! Some tracks, especially Backslider and Backsliding, which fit together to form one song, would be almost uplifting if not for Balabanian's thick, haunting vocals darkening the sparse musical space.
Speck Mountain's Some Sweet Relief could lazily be called a "slow burn." But this record doesn't burn slow so much as it smolders. These songs seethe with a persistent, low heat that feels comforting at first, wrapping around you. But then the temperature flares up in a red-cheeked surge, the songs take on layers of sound like a film of sweat, and it becomes apparent that something is at stake here.
Given that it came out in the US three months ago, some of you might already have had your early (and perhaps entire, given the curmudgeonly nature of our fair climate) summer soundtracked by Some Sweet Relief, Speck Mountain's follow-up to their 2007 debut Summer Above. If you haven’t, and if your enjoyment of a sunny day would be enhanced by the sort of opiate space rock grooves that flit across the ground where Spiritualized and Mazzy Star overlap, then throw your hands in the air and scream in joy. If of course you’re not, being a space rock aficionado, too caned to move.
Speck Mountain's 2007 debut, Summer Above, was a pleasant but indistinct set of spacey, drifting songs. The Chicago quartet's individual elements-- particularly the Hope Sandoval-ish vocals of Marie-Claire Balabanian and the syrupy bass of Karl Briedrick-- were solid. But there was something passive about the proceedings. Thoroughly relaxed and mellow, the album suggested that not only could Speck Mountain do this in their sleep, but they'd prefer to.
It would take a hard heart not to feel some sympathy for Marie-Claire Balabanian and Karl Briedrick, who say they were "severely depressed, lonely and desperate" when they started recording their second album as Speck Mountain. Even so, did they have to wallow quite as much? Some Sweet Relief is adrift in a sea of despondency, Balabanian's drawling vocals listless with discontent, the repetitive guitar lines striving for a Spiritualized-style hypnotism, but languishing instead in monotony. Nor do the lyrics offer much drama, for all the lapses into cinematic cliche, the black nights, lost highways and dreams of escape.
Speck Mountain’s debut Summer Above was nice, but it was a pair of singles that boss Specks Marie-Claire Balabanian (vocals, guitar, bass) and Karl Briedrick (bass, guitar) released on their Burnt Brown Sounds imprint that really gave me hope that Some Sweet Relief would be something special. One was their cover of Valet’s “Blood Is Clean,” the other a record by Valet herself. Aside from the obvious statement that this is one band that puts its money behind its fandom, it suggested that the pleasant languidness of their debut might flame up into something a bit more, well, burnt.