Noah and the Whale
An appreciation for film is arguably the most common first step in uncovering and eventually admiring the arts. Contrary to the conventional uses of music, photography, or painting, children are exposed to both educational and entertaining films at an early age in order to maximize their general perception of morals, social interaction, and social norms. At this early age, art is hardly an afterthought. Guardians use film to make their children more socially aware, and mainly to safely occupy them without putting much effort forth. The same could be said for something like finger-painting or children’s music, but kid-centric films remain the norm in introducing children to media for the first time. The others do not have the capacity for upheld interest when the child is older. When they grow of age and begin to examine the audible and visual creations around them, film is naturally the first form of art that many gravitate towards. Complex intricacies involving camera angles, music theory, and color schemes are not found within the arts until further investigation regardless, but to capture an essence of childhood in-depth is perhaps more rewarding than an interest that peaked around one’s pre-teens, which is most often the case with music or painting. There are always exceptions, which are what most of us like to call prodigies, but there are few truly talented artists that undervalue the function of film, whether it is used to complement their music or paintings, or simply enjoyed as a hobby.
I have featured dozens of artists that got their start by scoring music for low-budget films; The Western States Motel, Camphor, and The Leisure Society are just a few that come to mind. Apart from producing stellar music, they share a common bond in the narrative appeal of their songs. All of their recent albums have been at least slightly conceptual, whether it was The Leisure Society’s fascination with occupied time or Camphor’s infatuation with wabi sabi (a Japanese conceptual belief that true greatness exists in the inconspicuous details of our world and true beauty can only be discovered in life’s imperfections). Neither of these thematic approaches relates to film, but as groups with experience in both film and songwriting they have an increased capacity to interweave various experiences to result in an enhanced narrative for their music. For filmmakers this could result in more effective sound design for their films. These artists have found the proper divide in differentiating and unifying the uses of audible and visual art, leading to results that are more frequently successful than those with a minimal externally artistic influence. Although their appreciation for film is only found through their name to the naked eye, Noah and the Whale possess the same narrative prowess that most songwriters seem to foolishly neglect.
Taking their name from Noah Baumbach’s excellent 2005 film The Squid and the Whale, Noah and the Whale profoundly express an appreciation for film’s ability to simulate dramatic real-life experiences into a comforting, occasionally humorous depiction. This is what Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale did so gracefully, which is perhaps why the London-based quartet chose their name as an ode to its flawless approach. Their sophomore album, The First Days of Spring, also plays with a funny little thing we call human emotions in a way that relieves the heartbreak, loneliness, and general sullenness of a life without authentic fulfillment. This is also a common theme among the films of Wes Anderson, another filmmaker that Noah and the Whale have publicly displayed their adoration for. The four-piece has already caught the attention of Baumbach, so I would personally be shocked if these guys are not featured in a film by the end of next year. The First Days of Spring clarifies this sentiment entirely, as it plays like a feature film from beginning to end. It is almost like a soundtrack to one of the quirkiest, but also ardently effective, films of the year. That sounds like a film by Baumbach or Anderson to me. You can expect them to be proclaimed the next big thing when either of them features the group in a movie… it seems pretty imminent at this point.
The group’s debut, Peaceful, the World Lays Me Down, last year was undoubtedly impressive, but when listening to The First Days of Spring and looking back on it the debut seems like such a menial affair. This is such an expansive, mature release that it only vaguely resembles the group that put out one of last year’s more impressive debuts. The fascinating thing here is the album’s progression, shifting from barren folk tracks like “Our Window” to the cinematic orchestras in “Instrumental I” and “Love of an Orchestra” with precision. It does not sound forced nor desperate, but rather an example of how this is a group that clearly values conceptual themes. For a track like “Our Window”, lead vocalist and songwriter Charlie Fink puts on his best Matt Berninger impression by mumbling subtly brilliant lyrical progressions in a deep baritone that resonates with elegance over his evolving folk melodies. “I Have Nothing” and “My Broken Heart” are in the more single-worthy category with their soulful accessibility. The former is particularly reminiscent of the acoustical, pop-minded tracks of the group’s debut, recalling the melancholic practice of unfaithfulness as Fink pleads for his beloved to walk with him on “a new spring morning”. Rebirth, reconciliation, and rejection are all common occurrences in Fink’s work. “Come back to me, my darling,” he pleads. “I’d do anything to be at your side.”
“My Broken Heart” is perhaps the album’s shining moment, not wasting a moment over its five-minute span with a perfect mixture of guitars, strings, and a voice that is powerful enough to make anything sound convincing. “Broken hearts are a fickle thing and complicated too,” Fink sings. “I thought I believed in love but I’ve never seen it through.” After lamenting that he never married the girl he loved, he resorts to a technique that most songwriters in the indie-folk genre are reluctant to use: the power of optimism. “But I’ll be laughing again,” he sings before the emergence of a triumphant horn. The track picks up into an expansively rewarding evolution here, leaving room for the gracefulness of strings and eventually a guitar solo that wraps this gem up beautifully. This ingenious use of additional instrumentation, particularly the emergence of brass, is particularly reminiscent of Andrew Bird, another immensely gifted songwriter with a knack for narrative bliss. But comparisons are insulting for a band that has released something as memorable as The First Days of Spring. For as the name of this album entails, Noah and the Whale have experienced a rebirth in which their music resonates with a sense of emotional authenticity that is only believable from the mouths of children. But with music as heartfelt, genuine, and excitable as this, no one can doubt the progressive talent of Noah and the Whale.