February 22, 2011

This Is Where We Are

Seryn (2011, Velvet Blue Music)
This Is Where We Are

Seryn formed only two years ago or so, but they’ve already been making significant waves in their native Texas, garnering such accolades as “best folk artist” and “song of the year” from local newspapers. This Is Where We Are is the five-piece’s debut album, and it’s a solid debut, to say the least. More accurately, it’s the kind of album that you’d expect from seasoned veterans, not a group that’s only been around for a handful of years: it’s big, bold, and sweeping, full of anthemic songs that aim for the nosebleed section without ever losing their warmth, intimacy, and intricacy. It’s a delicate balancing act and one that Seryn pulls off with aplomb.

It’s temping to simply describe Seryn’s sound as “folk pop/rock” — think somewhere between Fleet Foxes, Shearwater, and Jonathan Inc. — thanks to the homespun beauty of their melodies, their menagerie of instruments (guitar, banjo, ukulele, violin, and accordion, to name a few), and the group’s stirring vocal harmonies. However, that doesn’t really give you any indication of just how much this album rocks, and rock it most certainly does, in a barn-storming, floor-stomping, heart-wrenching sort of way.

What’s more, Seryn’s ability to rock is matched with an almost preternatural aptitude for restraint and slowburn. That is to say, for all of their sturm und drang, Seryn’s songs move purposefully, often starting with little more than a single guitar or simple, hushed vocal, and building from there. You’ll hear no post-rock freak-outs or sudden stop/start dynamics on the album, though. Rather, Seryn and producer Britton Beisenherz slowly layer the instruments and vocals, giving them all plenty of room to breathe. The result is a lush, beautiful mix that takes its time to wind its way into the listener’s heart and soul. When the album’s crescendos invariably do come, they hit with all the more oomph because of the patience involved in their creation, execution, and experience.

The best example of this is “Beach Song”, which contains This Is Where We Are’s biggest moments, as well as some of its subtlest. The song begins with a languid acoustic guitar, pensive vocals, and cryptic lyrics, but eventually becomes a storm of sound as accordion, percussion, and violin whip things up. In what could very well become my favorite musical moment of 2011, though, a seemingly insignificant banjo emerges as the song’s lynchpin, moving deftly to set everything else — pounding drums, soaring violin, majestic vocal harmonies — on their proper path. A similar pattern emerges on many other songs on the album, including “Towering”, “Our Love”, and “River Song” — and it never ceases to have an impact.

In my original draft of this review, I ended on a snarky note, and even threw in an Arcade Fire comparison for good measure. But after some reflection, I realized that snark wasn’t appropriate when talking about an album as heartfelt and well-crafted as This Is Where We Are. This is good, honest, soul-stirring music of the finest kind, music that never feels the need to announce itself or overstate its worth (which makes the simple statement of the album’s title all the more fitting). Music that, for all of the jams it kicks out, remains humble and understated. That slowly but surely does its own blessed, glorious, beautiful thing — and there’s no denying it once it begins.