In a more perfect and just world, The Great Depression would supplant bands like Coldplay as the choice for discerning adults looking for mature “alternative” music. Or if not supplant them, then at least be known as a more than viable alternative. But whereas Chris Martin et al. wear their hearts on their sleeve and go for melodramatic bombast that’s earnest as anything and affecting for what it is, The Great Depression take the exact opposite route.
As their name implies, the duo of Todd Casper and Thomas Cranley craft gloomy, introspective songs, full of grey, wintry atmospherics, somnabulistic vocals, and nuanced arrangements. It’s probably not be most attention-grabbing music, but The Great Depression’s music is perhaps more rewarding in the long run. Rather than bowl you over with soaring overwroughtness that sounds amazing at first but which eventually loses its charm, Casper and Cranley’s gloomily lush, opaque pop unfolds with every listen to reveal an amazing array of sonic details that consistently proves lovely and alluring.
And that’s doubly so with Preaching to the Fire, the group’s second full-length. While their previous album, 2003’s Unconscious Pilot, contained a couple of songs that were at least close to being obvious singles (“The Baltic Sea,” “The Sargasso Sea”), Preaching to the Fire doesn’t really have any such tracks. A small handful, such as “The Telekinetics,” come close, but not very. Instead, Preaching to the Fire is all about atmosphere, even moreso than Unconscious Pilot, and in this regard, Casper and Cranley succeed brilliantly.
The album runs the occasional risk of the songs blending together into one dark grey-ish, nocturnal blob of sound. But the duo keeps things interesting by investing their lovely atmospherics with an anxious tension. Sure, being inspired by anxiety, paranoia, and alienation isn’t anything new in today’s musical climate — Radiohead, anyone? — but The Great Depression keep it subtle and in just the right amount, giving their mood an urgency that proves just as infectious and captivating as any pop hook.
The band’s vocals, while very dreamy and breathy, have a straining to them, an imploring side that prevents the voices from simply fading into the mix and becoming yet another instrument. And while the lyrics are often abstract, more snatches of thought than anything else, there’s still something quite intriguing about them — especially “Quiet Out There“ ‘s critique of the “War On Terror” as mere evening entertainment for folks back home who are more concerned with fashion and sex.
Unlike the otherwise solid Unconscious Pilot, which was hindered by some odd pacing problems, Preaching to the Fire keeps things moving. Only one song stretches past the 5 minute mark, and even then, just barely. While one might expect that such a dreamy album would try to push the songs as long as possible to allow the sonics to become more expansive, the exact opposite occurs here. As a result, the atmospherics become even more intense and alluring. They never have a chance to become stale and staid, which probably explains why I find them so enticing even after countless listens to the disc since I received it.
Of course, the songs’ relative brevity means that they’re bursting with all manner of lovely little sonic details, all filtered through the band’s beautifully gloomy sensibility. There are the lilting horns on “Make Way For Nostalgia,” which in any other context would sound uplifting but here, in keeping with the title, seem more wistful than anything else.
There are snatches of background conversations filtering through the hazy guitars of “Somewhere Over The Counterculture,” which curiously lend the song a certain intimacy, as if the vocals are one of those conversations that the listener has just happened to pick up a bit more clearly.
“Written In Coal” comes the closest to the sort of bombast that I mentioned earlier, with building string and synth arrangements. However, the group keeps things restrained, which only makes the vocals asking “Who did this to you?” all the grittier and more desperate and makes the song more interesting than if they’d let loose with their guitars and gone for something more eruptive.
Finally, the tenuous dulcimer tones that drift and shiver through the album’s title track serve as a perfect sonic capstone to the anxiety and melancholy that colors Preaching to the Fire. At the same time, they provide a lovely flourish, as their fragile sound also contains a haunting quality that seems almost orchestral at times. It’s a little detail that perfectly encapsulates both sides of the the band’s music, the darkness and melancholy the proves so seductive and intoxicating as well as the undeniable beauty contained therein.