Can these east Londoners carve out their own sound?
Imagine trying to dry a river. With a sponge, say. It’d be frantic, furious and frustrating work, culminating in a moment of triumph when, after years of life-threatening effort against insurmountable odds, you squeegee the final drops of the Rhine into a bucket and tip it down the sink. Now imagine what a band called Dry The River should sound like. Like Fucked Up beating Wet Wet Wet to death with a blood-drenched mop. Right?
Not east London’s Sound Of 2012 heroes Dry The River. They sound a bit like a tamed Wild Beasts. A less witty and adventurous Stornoway. A bit Elbow, a bit The National, a bit Doves. And a bit, y’know, Mumford. They lay claim to a wide array of leftfield, credible and obscurist influences – Neutral Milk Hotel, At The Drive-In, Devendra Banhart, Leonard Cohen – but it’s just a diversionary tactic to avoid the inevitable labelling as a catch-all homogenisation of all the current Big Music bands with no discernible character of their own. They’re a band for people who like that sort of thing, an Athlete for Generation i.
Which isn’t to say they’re not ruddy good at being 2012’s premier Everyband. ‘Shallow Bed’ – for all its many epic violin maulings, MOR vocal trills and vaguely dusty and mystical lyrics about history books, sacrificial deer and Phrygian lions – is steeped in artfully crafted melodic shifts and chord progressions that could give a shark shivers. You could argue that Dry The River stand out by not merely relying on a bombastic final third to puff out lightweight tunes, but by making those tunes robust, smart and intriguing journeys in themselves. But then those beige-rock references spew forth and you can’t help wishing they’d put as much effort into forging an individual sound as they clearly have sharpening their hooks.
‘Animal Skins’, ‘New Ceremony’ and ‘Shield Your Eyes’ are all cracking tunes that make for a fairly mighty opening salvo, but they also make you want to go listen to other, properly classic albums. When singer Peter Liddle’s airy warble echoes away over misty acoustic arpeggios on ‘History Book’ before the track builds in a bulbous crescendo of crisp indie trumpets, your head suddenly fills with the disturbing image of what a child of Antony Hegarty and Sufjan Stevens might look like. The genuinely thrilling ‘The Chambers & The Valves’ ups the pace with bursts of righteous choral chanting and horns, but even then it doesn’t half remind you how brilliant Doves’ ‘Pounding’ sounded the first time around, or how exhilarating you once found the brass breezes of Beirut’s ‘Elephant Gun’. ‘Shallow Bed’ is, essentially, the sound of grandiose alt.indie by committee. Quite possibly the Mercury Prize committee.
Dry The River work best when Liddle’s lyrics weave a maudlin narrative between the stately sonic architecture. ‘Bible Belt’ is a stirring tale of a family torn apart by alcoholism, ‘Shaker Hymns’ a stark story of a marriage gone awry, ‘Demons’ a lush study in depression, complete with a tortured orchestral climax. Opaque emoting and purple poetics dotted with classical literatary references emphasise the formulaic fudge of the music, but only when a snippet of truth slams the whole thing into focus does the album transcend its influences. Sadly, the final 15 minutes consist of lengthy tracks which throw every ounce of bombast and ballast at the wall, as if to say to the listener “COME ON, THIS ORCHESTRA COST US SHITLOADS, BE MOVED, YOU BASTARDS!”
Ahem. Dry The River have made a very good debut album. It’s accomplished, luxuriant, expertly crafted. Your mum will, rightly, love it. But deep down you won’t be excited. And probably, no-one in the future of rock music will ever say ‘New Band X: all a bit ‘Shallow Bed’…’