The Boats - Ballads of the Research Department [12k - 2012]The Boats' "Ballads of the Research Department" is an album of fragile and ethereal 'slowcore' or ambient post rock that never rises above a very relaxed energy level, a patient, resigned feeling like watching the rain pour down through the window, recalling the phrase "the serenity to accept the things I cannot change"... Each of the 4 songs is over 10 minutes long, and goes through sections of beautifully orchestrated piano and strings, vocals (a whisper or faint croon), and pulsing, crackling electronic ambience, full of analog warmth. As with other such bands, they play simple, repeating riffs, but the overall soundscape becomes very complex.
The pad sound that opens the album is an airy, refreshing texture, and even on its own contains of world of compassionate emotion and beauty. Circled by winds, the listener begins a pleasant drift that remains unbroken throughout the record. After 2 minutes, the gusts of sound are stripped back and only a lonely, muted organ tone remains, riddled with crackling imperfections. A crescendo follows, and it is revelatory; the orchestration expands to include wordless choirs, piano chords and yearning cellos. It's simply heartwrenching, and, due to its versatility, something even beyond "cinematic" in scope.
I haven't heard a shimmery loveliness this perfect and complete perhaps since Bjork's "Vespertine". The production is so incredibly lush, full of details, layers and sounds that make this album a complete landscape. All frequency ranges are perfectly balanced in a radiant prismatic harmony that is pure pleasure to the ears.
"The Ballad of Failure" begins with the drums, playing a relaxed groove, and male vocals, intoned in a calm shoegazer style. The lyrics have a universal quality that does not undermine the highly interpretable nature of the music. "You can come out from your hiding place / You can see the funny side." The song dissolves into soothing spirals of harp-like tones, which become softer and softer, complimented by lilting, soft laments from the piano. Unexpectedly, a minimalist electronic beat appears, and picks the song out of the soupy ambient murk just as it was beginning to feel stagnant. It couldn't be better timing.
The final two songs are every bit as gorgeous and emotive as the first two, in fact "The Ballad for the Girl on the Moon" is likely my favorite track. The songs are just different from one another to continuously surprise and amaze, never dwelling too long in a particular space. This sets this album above other music in this genre, which can sometimes feel wallowing, repetitive or bland. The Boats show that there is a vast range of possible dynamics and textures even within this niche of slow, ambient rock. This is the kind of sophistication I'd expect from a rock album on Taylor Deupree's 12k label. I can't imagine a better melancholic rainy day contemplation than one spent with this CD