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Sea Wolf’s sophomore effort gets stuck in winter doldrums

Joey Kuhn | Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Sea Wolf, an indie folk group led by Alex Brown Church, recently released their second full-length album, “White Water, White Bloom.”

Every sophomore album must suffer the fate of being endlessly compared to its predecessor, and this one is no exception. Unfortunately, “White Water, White Bloom” falls flat compared to Sea Wolf’s first album, “Leaves in the River.” Although “White Water” retains much of the same poetic imagery and musical feel as “Leaves,” it is missing the tiny yet memorable quirks that set “Leaves” apart from its contemporaries. Where is the plinking, music-box piano, the striking violin lines, the polka-band accordion? Without that added “oomph,” the special sauce, Sea Wolf just ends up sounding like all the rest of the indie folk bands out there. They are a dime a dozen: Everyone wants to be the new Bright Eyes or Iron & Wine.

That’s not to say that Sea Wolf doesn’t do anything right. The gentle, delicate sound they create, even on the more upbeat songs, evokes a quiet Northern winter feel, consistent with the lyrics of the album. Most of the songs could be placed in a snowy field on a cold night or in some frosted forest in upper Canada. (Ironically, the band is based in Los Angeles.) This is even reinforced by the album artwork, which depicts the inside of a log cabin complete with a wood-burning stove, a window looking out upon snowy hills and a copy of a Walt Whitman book on the table.

The lyrics place the album firmly in this winter location. Every song seems to be about a relationship between the starry-eyed singer and some mysterious, dark woman. Because of this lyrical and thematic consistency, “White Water” could almost be a concept album. But it’s hard to make out any continuous story from the nebula of hazy ideas.
The album’s weakness is its own consistency. Instead of letting their musical creativity flow freely, it seems like the band wrote ten different versions of the same song, ranging from lullaby-ish folk to slightly heavier folk. None of the songs really stand out; the creative spark from the first album has gone out.

Of course, the lack of fire fits the album’s wintry aesthetic. (With a band so preoccupied with time of year, it is impossible to write a review without succumbing to the use of seasonal metaphors.) “Leaves in the River” could be said to take place between late October and early December, and “White Water” takes up where “Leaves” left off. The whole album stays pretty firmly in the winter, and like a long winter, it gets pretty dull. Nevertheless, the last track, “Winter’s Heir,” hints at the first signs of spring. As such, I’ll be expecting a third album with motifs of green grass and bunnies hopping around.
If you like indie folk music, definitely give “Leaves in the River” a listen, but don’t expect too much out of “White Water, White Bloom.” It may serve your purposes when you’re looking for some chill studying music or something to lull you to sleep. Or you might want to put it on to keep you company through those cold winter nights in your log cabin in Duluth.