By: Scott Caffrey
The latest splinter from Eagle Rock, California’s Ship Collective, Sea Wolf, namely one Alex Brown Church, released its debut Leaves in the River (Dangerbird, 2007) a mere three days before the Autumnal Equinox. No coincidence, either, as the imagery of the title is explicit, and Church is very clearly an autumnophile. But before we get all George Winston on the guy, Church’s amazing songwriting blasts that first impression into oblivion. Thoughtful, mature, insightful lyrics about a unique young life work in tandem with intimate, experimental indie-pop backing. So, while there’s every reason to believe Leaves is a concept album about the Fall, that idea doesn’t even tell half of Sea Wolf’s story.
As a kid, Church kicked around the world with his mom (Alaska, Hawaii, France), but most of his formative years were spent in the Bay Area, near the very port from which Jack London’s Humphrey Van Weyden embarks on his journey in the novel The Sea Wolf. Once grounded in California, Church did a little bluegrass busking and then joined the band Irving as its bassist/co-writer. These myriad experiences helped develop a unique blend of influences that resonated in his musical DNA. After four quiet years developing his sound, writing songs just to fill out a setlist and ruing the day he couldn’t beat all the other Wolf-named bands on the scene, Sea Wolf has arrived. Technically still in its infancy, you wouldn’t know it from this record.
Everything here is rightly stellar, including the sleepy bookends (“Leaves in the River” and “Neutral Ground”), but it’s a centerpiece trio that helps Leaves achieve its heights. Cello lays a deep bed where all these tunes jump off from, infusing the more familiar instruments (guitar, drums, keys) with melancholy. “Middle Distance Runner” is a breezy jaunt with pitter-patter percussion that serves as a gateway to “You’re a Wolf,” a hook-laden single destined for a long life on the indie hot list. Following it up nicely, “Song for the Dead” is a dastardly mix of strumming that shows off the low end of Church’s fantastic voice.
Church did most of the recording himself with some faithful Ship friends brought in to flesh things out. There’s a very psychedelic sound to his singer-songwriter tendencies, and with the assistance of producer Phil Ek (The Shins, Built To Spill, Band Of Horses), all the blips, noise and knob-twiddlings are fantastic enhancements to otherwise slow burning songs. At ten tracks, the technicality police might consider Leaves in the River still another River-named Sea Wolf EP. But, the brevity only enhances the mood and prevents it from becoming self-indulgent.
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