It’s hard to listen to Balmorhea’s new full-length, Stranger, and not think of other things.
I’m talking partly about other bands, obviously — there’s a whole heck of a lot of resemblance to fellow Austin instro-rockers Explosions in the Sky and (much more so) My Education, not to mention Seattleites Unwed Sailor, and further afield from that I’m hearing echoes of Eric Johnson in the nimble, “round”-sounding guitar lines and Peter Gabriel in the intricate, well-thought-out arrangements (Houston’s own Holy Fiction comes to mind in that vein, as well).
Beyond the stylistic similarities to other bands and musicians, though, I also mean that Stranger isn’t the kind of album that you sit and listen to intently, focusing on every note and nuance. It’s music that floats in the background, rather, while you’re doing something else. And that’s not a bad thing, at least not in this case.
While you read or work or whatever the hell it is you do, this Texas-bred six-piece quasi-orchestra slowly, cautiously seeps into your consciousness, inexorable as a leak in an un-flashy, slow-and-steady thunderstorm that’s sitting over your house. Before you know it, you’re submerged in Balmorhea’s sound, feeling the delicately jazz-/prog-tinged lines swirl and spiral around you as the band treads the line between fragile indie gorgeousness and more straight-up, low-key jazz.
I tend to be a track-by-track kind of listener, personally, but here the individual tracks aren’t all that important, at least not to my ears; there’s a strong underlying current of sound that links all the “songs” here together so that it’s almost better, I think, to view Stranger as a coherent whole rather than a bunch of smaller pieces.
Certainly, moments stand out, like Moby-like repeated piano motif and just-rough-enough distorted guitar in “Artifact,” or the vaguely Afropop-esque influence that filters through “Masollan,” with its rubbery, stretchy bass, or the hopping, barely restrained joy evident in the busy, sun-coming-up sound of “Pyrakantha.” But there are really no singles here, and those sublime moments merely serve to elevate the whole.
And elevate it does, imbuing Stranger with an subtle insistence that damn near demands you like Balmorhea as they smile shyly and wind in and around your skull. As for me, yeah, I’m powerless to resist.