England in 1819, Alma
Listening to England In 1819′s Alma, I feel less like I’m hearing an album and more like I’m watching some tragic, heartrendingly beautiful play unfold on a stage off in the distance. The music is stately and beautiful, all melancholy and sweeping grandeur, but never comes off as too epic or unwieldy. It’s a small play, really, with a minimal cast of characters and few props, but they use what’s there to the fullest extent they can, in the process creating something utterly enthralling.
Adding to that dramatic resemblance, the songs themselves feel like they’re meant to be listened to in order, from start to finish; I get the distinct impression that if you were to skip around, you’d somehow miss something, some crucial step upwards or shift in the overall mood of the album. Act I always (well, almost always) goes before Act II, after all, right?
It makes sense, as well, because while I’d heard a couple of tracks from Alma previously, they frankly didn’t do a whole lot for me — they played, and I listened, and then I just kind of shrugged. Now I’m wondering if it wasn’t because they were out of their rightful context, just off by themselves on the island called my iPod. Or, hell, maybe they’ve just grown on me since.
Whatever the reason, when the Callaways (father Liam and brothers Andrew and Dan) starts out opener “Air That We Once Breathed” low-key and quiet, stepping delicately along, now it makes perfect sense. The track slowly builds, then, incorporating plucked guitars, a laid-back clarinet(?), and maybe even a xylophone before crashing into a positively Radiohead-esque crescendo of just-distorted-enough guitars, fragile falsetto, and a waltz-y rhythm, all of which sets the stage for the rest of the CD.
I should note, by the way, that I can’t get away from the Radiohead touchstone with these guys. There’s a lot here that reminds me of that band, alternately pointing backwards to The Bends or OK Computer — especially Andrew Callaway’s fragile, Yorke-ish falsetto, but also in terms of the song structures England in 1819 build and then let collapse.
Not that the comparison should be taken as a slight, mind you. What I hear here is an influence, not a copycat, by any means, and the Callaways have taken that influence and transformed it into something else entirely. See “Chaplin Speaks,” for one example — the track begins with an out-of-time radio sound, but smoothly shifts into soaring, piano-driven rock that comes thundering through your ears like a giant wave.
Then there’s “Skyscraper,” which is elegaic and murky before it amps upwards into a darkly-realized symphony that brings to mind Andrew W.K.’s awesome “You Will Remember Tonight” when the guitar is roaring alongside the orchestral instruments. It’s a definite high point, as is “Waterfall,” which again goes from fragile beauty at the start to turn into something heavier and decidedly more “rock.”
My absolute favorite track, however, is a toss-up between two of the final three. I truly, truly love “The Elephant”‘s low-key pace and the yearning and uncertainty fighting in Callaway’s voice, but title track “Alma” may win out by virtue of its sheer weight. At seven-and-a-half minutes long, it’s orchestral and sweeping, sounding like a morose Coldplay at points, with the band throwing sound after sound onto the song…and holy fucking crap, is that an honest-to-God opera singer in the background, there? Yeah, this one wins.