I hate their name, but goddammit I like their music. I have been listening to Noah and the Whale's debut album "Peaceful, the World Lays Me Down" nonstop since I bought it in December. While I'm still struggling with my British accent, I think it's fair to say that I now speak whale.
The members of Noah and the Whale are what we look for in our indie crooners: they aren't Americans, they play cute instruments that are littler than usual (ukulele, mandolin, glockenspiel, kazoo...), and are an adorable couple that may or may not be dating.
Noah and the Whale nails all of the pre-musical requirements that the genre demands of it. Musically, they go above and beyond what most expect from hokey maybe-dating duos. While they take their cues from Belle & Sebastian and The Weepies, Noah and the Whale's members also infuse an element of American country and bluegrass into their music. Their arrangements are usually sparse: guitar-heavy tunes with a prominent gravelly, vocal line. This is nothing new, but Noah and the Whale seems to make something different out this mundane folk formula. Their strengths lie in their ability to take one musical idea and hash it out, to stretch a concept to its limits, to show the listener all of the possibilities inherent in a simple folk melody. Noah and the Whale plays to these strengths in "Peaceful, the World Lay Me Down."
I am a sucker for beautiful duets. The interplay between the two vocalists of Noah and the Whale is lovely, but is effective in its moments of grittiness. The best vocal moments of the album don't occur in the soft and rounded "oo" vowels, they occur when the harsh British accents of Charlie Fink (lead) and Laura Marling come together in a kind of rough poetry. Like punk singers, they chew on their words. They do so with a striking similarity and swell in and out of their long notes like dancers, pushing and pulling against the other. In these vocal performances, they achieve what all musicians hope to in a performance which is sharing the same musical body. They think, react, and interpret the music as they believe the other might.
It took me a while to appreciate Fink's lyrics. I've never been one for the vagueness of pop lyrics, but in this case, I was willing to make a suggestion. Like the music that they play, the lyrics straddle the line between pop, punk, folk and country. Their hooks are simple—often three or four words—but they serve as a nice foil to the heavy, often philosophical themes of their verses. Usually this juxtaposition of hyper-serious and overly simple lyrics might feel too jarring, but Noah and the Whale make it work.
The entire album is a success, but there are some songs that are especially strong. The first song you will listen to will undoubtedly be "5 Years Time." You will recognize this song from the Saturn commercial, you will think to yourself "I hate my television," you'll get distracted...just listen to it. After you repair your broken iTunes (from overplaying this song) you'll want to move on to "Shape of My Heart." This song encapsulates all that works well on this album: feel-good, driving drums, punchy guitars, clapping, and a sugary sweet chorus. "Rocks and Daggers" is a fantastic tune that has a tinge of bluegrass. The fiddle solo will pleasantly surprise you, and convince you that even the widely disliked American genre of bluegrass can be made catchy by a group of London hipsters. I can say, with almost 100 percent certainty, that they will never touch our Pabst Blue Ribbon.