Despite its reputation as the “fun” season, summer 2012 came with a whole lot of malaise. Frank Ocean revealed his disillusionment on Channel Orange, and Fiona Apple languished in her discontent on her verbosely-titled fourth LP. Passion Pit tackled their demons on Gossamer, and even Japandroids’ Celebration Rock carried an undercurrent of darkness. Maybe it’s the imminent Mayan endtimes, or maybe it’s just an election year, but the music industry has been less-than-sunny recently. That’s one of the reasons Freelance Whales’ sophomore record is so gratifying. We might have slid reluctantly into October, but the Queens-based quintet has avoided all hint of autumn ennui, producing a satisfying collection of songs that can only be described as fun.
On Diluvia, the Whales walk the line between lighthearted and twee, a boundary they’ve clearly mastered. Diluvia might feature euphoric horns and choral chanting, but the impeccable songwriting and complete lack of posturing counter most accusations of sentimentality. The record soars from grandeur to modesty, from symphony to minimalism, rarely committing to either extreme for long. Like the slightly more electronic cousin of Sufjan Stevens and Radical Face, the band favors intimately orchestral compositions that still somehow feel organic. The effect is a diverse and wonderfully unpretentious album that proves the band hasn’t drifted far from their modest roots as New York City buskers.
Where they have strayed, however, is scope. I imagine rousing choral arrangements and euphoric horns are less than feasible when your venue is the Court Square subway station. But now that they’ve tucked away a record deal, a couple tours and—the true mark of success—a whole host of Tumblr fangirls, Freelance Whales can afford to expand. On “Aeolus,” they pair rumbling percussion with a robust choir, and tie it together with symphonic wave after symphonic wave of synth. As the choir repeatedly chants “hoo,” frontman Judah Dadone lilts lyrics both tender and sincere (“keep me in your warm arms / cradle me while I unhinge my neurons”). “Follow Through” is similarly full-bodied, though the opener’s celestial heights are tossed aside for more earthly concerns. Deliberate and precise, this track is the result of faultless, meticulous writing.
“Spitting Image” reveals the band’s extraordinary depth and spotlights Doris Cellar’s stunning vocals. Over another tapestry of choral chanting and soaring synth, Cellar’s voice is stouter than Dadone’s — and her full vocals work perfectly with the brazenly sexy lyrics (“our fingers swell up and our bodies keep lifting off the sheets / our eyelids collapse as our limbs and hinges crashed into the sea”). Later, “Dig Into Waves” and “Locked Out” pulsate over stirring horns, more synth and what sounds like a glockenspiel.
At a certain point, however, those electronic waves and “hoo”-ing choirs start to blend together. Orchestral layer piles on orchestral layer, and some of the tracks begin to sound the same. “Land Features,” for example, sounds like a mimicry of the band’s more fleshed-out tracks; all the elements are there, but they don’t quite come together like they should. Instead of the euphoric resonance exhibited on other tracks, this tune comes off as artificial and twee. Luckily, this blandness seems to be more of a fluke than a trend, and the album continues in a thrilling fashion.
As Diluvia winds down, the Whales tone down the grandeur for a series of quiet, soothing tracks. “The Nothing” floats in on a current of unpretentious electronica, while “DNA Bank” marries ghostly instrumentation and poignant contemplation (“formulate our species’ hopes / cut the twine in little ropes / if all the angels cannot sleep / fall into a decorative peace”). The result is almost minimalist, and the penultimate track is one of the album’s most affecting. Diluvia concludes with “Emergence Exit,” a meticulous, seeping reflection on lost love (“you would have been better alone without my love / you would have been safe from storms”). After the preceding 35-minute marathon, the last few tracks feel like a long, calming exhale. While distinctly contemplative, they are as unexpectedly catchy as the first eight tracks.
Avoiding the dreaded sophomore slump, Diluvia overlaps with more than it diverges from Weathervanes. Freelance Whales have mastered the art of consistent growth; they’ve evolved and matured, but not to the point that they’ve left their roots behind. Diluvia aims for and achieves a level of fun that is simultaneously thrilling and comforting. [B+]
Listen to ‘Diluvia’ in its entirety here.