Some music works best as a background. It doesn’t work so well when you’re driving on the open road, windows down, and so on, but it’s perfect for a contemplative night of chain-smoking in a dim room and getting lost in the wallpaper. On his previous releases, Gravenhurst (nee Nick Talbot) has primarily occupied that folksy, foreboding, background music space.
With the new Gravenhurst full-length, Fires in Distant Buildings, that changes. Talbot and drummer Dave Collingwood elect to explore the sonic boundary between background music and full-on noise. Album opener “Down River” suggests quiet contemplation, snaps suddenly to propulsive distortion, and cuts back again quick enough to induce the bends. “Song From Under the Arches” occupies a similar space, flowing repeatedly from quiet, post-folk electric guitar work to gorgeous, feedback-rich noise over its ten-plus minutes.
Talbot even dips his toe into the retro-garage rock movement with “The Velvet Cell.” It’s the closest thing to a pop song here, but it’s undermined by lyrics that seem culled from a particularly banal TV crime drama, notably the opening couplet, “To understand a killer, I must become a killer.” It’s a shame, too, because Talbot’s reach towards a Joy Division-meets-Strokes effect is fairly promising.
The closing track, “See My Friends,” is an interesting (if only intermittently successful) Kinks cover, mainly notable because it points to this album’s core problem: When Talbot stretches his legs, it ranges from really quite good to interesting-but-flawed. All too often, though, the album fades into the background for long, dull stretches. On “See My Friends,” there are seven minutes added to Talbot’s version beyond the original’s taut three minute run, and that added bulk is by no means essential, and certainly not reason enough to find its way out of that wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman style.