Blame it on my damned cynicism, but the minute I saw this band’s name, I immediately thought of a whiny, milquetoast emo band, the kind that gets birthed in the garage and go on to rock generator stages with their pallid, template-driven ballads of heartache. But within the first 15 seconds, The Great Depression immediately dispelled any such thoughts. There were no pimply voices screaming about infidelities and broken hearts, no bad high school poetry, no quiet/loud or stop/start dynamics that you could see coming from a mile away.
As befitting their name, The Great Depression immerse themselves in a dark, melancholy sound full of dense rhythms, weeping strings, grey-tinged walls of guitar, and layers of Todd Casper’s world-weary vocals, with nary a bit of angst in sight. Although the band hails from Minneapolis, there are certain similarities between The Great Depression and such New York outfits as Interpol and Calla, with a few hints of Radiohead thrown in for good measure. Like Calla, The Great Depression share an affinity for dark atmospherics, though I find these songs more enveloping than the brittle edges that lace Calla’s songs.
It’s a sound that immediately caught my ear the first time I listened to the disc, and it still continues to intrigue me. However, that’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement.
Unconscious Pilot opens with a string of songs that immediately draw the listener into the same twilit world the band inhabits. On “The Baltic Sea,” Casper sounds like a tired, beaten ghost, his vocals slowly ascending from the layers of percussion, dreamy synths, and sighing strings, only to be pulled back down by the dark undercurrents of Tom Cranley’s bass. “Two Is Fine” grows tenser by the minute, the rhythms growing more incessant and layered while the guitars chime and surge below the surface. Just when it seems like the song has gone as far as it can, the piano kicks in and pushes the song to a whole new level of intensity. Again, Casper sings like he’s been carrying his burdens for far too long, the words coming out like they were dragged from his throat.
“The City By Ultralight” opens on a softer note, with sonorous bass notes lazily tolling like bells late at night. The song develops at a sleepwalker’s pace, all hazy textures and sparse piano notes, until the lull is suddenly punctured by stabs of jagged feedback and icy synths. Meanwhile, Casper’s voice intones “You and I/Tour the city by/Ultralight,” singing with a detachment that perfectly fits the nighttime skyline that graces the sleeve’s inner artwork. While this might sound blasphemous to you hipsters out there, this track alone proved more interesting to me than the whole of Hail To the Thief — and it’s not even the best song on the album!
As great as these tracks are, it sometimes feels like the band’s dense sound is working against them. The band pursues it to an intoxicating effect, but there are inklings that it’s becoming too weighty for its own good. Each song is filled with layers of guitars, percussion, keys, and strings, creating a mix that is sometimes as claustrophobic as it is sensuous and intriguing. But the band exhibits a keen precision and attention to detail that manages to keep their dark atmospheres aloft for the disc’s first half. It isn’t until “Meet The Hapsburgs” that the album grinds to a screeching halt.
The song begins with repetitive guitar melodies, skittering percussion, and wordless vocals, before sequeing into a long, haunting denouement that resembles Dakota Suite’s morose “The Way That I Am Sick.” The song is meticulously crafted, but it accomplishes nothing and goes nowhere. While you wait for the song to work itself out, you can practically see the band’s sound collapsing in on itself like a black hole. The song would probably work better as a closing track, ending the album on a lengthy, haunting sequence. But when placed right smack dab in the middle of the album, it serves only to leech away the energy.
Fortunately, the band seems aware of the album’s lagging momentum, and immediately dives into “The Sargasso Sea.” The band’s sound, compressed so much by “Meet The Hapsburgs,” suddenly snaps back into the form of this, the album’s catchiest and brightest song. The soaring guitars and triumphant horns immediately shake the album out of its torpor, and Chadwick Nelson’s snappy drumming put it back on track. Although Casper’s vocals give the song a solemn tint, “The Sargasso Sea” still feels downright joyous compared to what’s come before.
With a renewed sense of momentum, the band settles back into a pace and vibe similar to that of the opening tracks. The band displays a new sense of conviction on the clamoring chorus of “Violent Goodbyes,” and especially in the ringing guitar notes that shine forth throughout the song. And when compared to the claustrophobic ambience that permeates much of Unconscious Pilot, “Ethansled“ ‘s lazily drifting guitar and upfront vocals feel less confined, perhaps even relaxed.
Although it’s nowhere near as exultant as “The Sargasso Sea,” I can’t help but feel that “Advents” closes things on a (cautiously) optimistic note. In a world where people often seem at the mercy of their own inventions and devices (“Did the appliance find a use for you today?/And did the schedule burned into your forehead keep you active?”), in a world many of us would throw away (“There is a planet filled with people trying to get off it”), Casper still manages to conclude that “there is a plan.”
Ultimately, the strengths of the album far outweigh any of its weaknesses. But those weaknesses are such that I can’t help but feel they hinder the album in some inopportune ways. If the track order had been shifted so that “Meet The Hapsburgs” wasn’t the speedtrap that it is, or if the production had been slightly less opaque and allowed Casper’s voice to shine a bit more… well, you get the idea.
But despite these criticisms, I really do love the sound The Great Depression is pursuing. Even after all of the times I’ve listened to this album, I still get a rush every time I hear songs as darkly overwhelming as “The Baltic Sea” or “Two Is Fine,” and “The Sargasso Sea“ ‘s punch and verve never fail to knock me over. While the band’s sound would definitely benefit from a bit of tweaking and tightening, it’s still incredibly solid and potent even on this, their debut album.