Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Album Review: Morningbell - Boa Noite

Album Rating: A
Who listens to albums anymore? In an increasingly hyperactive music culture ruled by YouTube and Soundcloud, where a good single aimed straight at the heart of the zeltgeist matters more than just about anything else, the craft of making a work meant to be listened front-to-back is increasingly underrated. Yet, the mark of a truly great work of art is one that transcends the sum of its parts: more than just ten or eleven great songs in succession, it must be something with a life of its own.

It’s with this in mind that Morningbell comes in with its sixth album, Boa Noite, and what an example it sets for all of us. After ten listens, the only things I can coherently note about it are emoticons, marking each little moment. Here’s where it made me smile, here’s where it made me sit up in my chair and gasp in awe, here’s where it made my eyes water as I completely crumbled in its wake. Boa Noite is full of little treasures, but it’s so cohesive that it defies attempts at dissection: throughout 38 minutes, the band reaches blissful highs, crushing lows, festive days and contemplative nights…sometimes all in the same song. The press release describes it as a gauntlet. It wasn’t exaggerating.

The opening trio of songs set the stage for the album. “Yes, Wonderful Things” fades in with blissful sounds, harp swirls and piano glissandos lending the song a heavenly vibe (a vibe reverberating through all of Boa Noite), but soon charges into a bombastic back-and-forth: “Do you see anything?” asks one coalition of voices behind soaring trumpets. “Yes, wonderful things!” replies another chorus in a subdued but vibrant timbre, oozing passion even as it chills to the bone. The song introduces a dynamic between gorgeous, delicate orchestral instrumentation and primal percussive power that characterizes much of Morningbell’s work. Oftentimes, the pacing of the album works to bring out this dichotomy: “Listen” is sweeping and contemplative, but follow-up “We Have Eyes As Well As Ears” revels in tribal anthemia, bringing in the bongos and heavy auxiliary instrumentation.

It’s a lot to digest, but the production creates an environment where every instrument can flourish, packing the percussion with a dynamic sense of gravity but also allowing the detailed guitar work and the myriad melodies to shine. It’s a perfect balance of elements: the instruments never overpower each other but work together to create a sumptuous world listeners will get lost in. This is a tropical paradise the likes of which no longer exist on our planet, a perfect place for Morningbell to explore its themes of adulthood and self-discovery.

What’s more, the band plays hard and fast with the rules of conventional songwriting, eschewing verse-chorus structures. Of the eleven on here, “Hush” is the song closest to any sort of classification, evoking the smoky melancholy of Billie Holiday's brand of big-band blues. Yet the instrumentation reaches into hip-hop and vaudeville, the production tempts comparisons to Frank Ocean, and the song somehow finds room in the middle to cram in a Broadway-esque piano bridge complete with a whispery monologue. That this is arguably the sanest song on Boa Noite says something about the other ten.

Though Boa Noite has whimsy to spare, there are surprisingly mature themes running throughout the album. Perhaps it’s the moon that carries the most significance, showing up in some of its most emotionally powerful moments. Pastoral lullaby “I Had A Dream” opens with a wondrous monologue on the explosion of the moon but soon touches on feelings of loneliness and nostalgia with fragile vocals and wistfully understated accompaniment from the tuba and the woodwinds. “Goodbye And Goodbye And Goodbye And Goodbye” finds a similar poignancy in the moon. Just as the song synthesizes Boa Noite's collection of rhythms (the toms driving the first movement, the stripped-back intimacy of the guitar interlude before the bouncy, carefree sunshine of the chorus), it also synthesizes the complex emotional undercurrents running throughout the album: resolution in the midst of ambiguity, independence and isolation in one. “I don’t understand how time can pass,” one lone voice ruminates at track’s end. “You used to call it love, and now it’s lonely, lonely as the moon.”

If all of this sounds like weepy hyperbole, that very well may be the point. It couldn’t sound more indulgent on paper. Who in the world thinks like this? 150 instruments? From a band whose last two albums were a choose-your-own-adventure tale and an album distributed entirely on USBs? It’s as if the titular band of This Is Spinal Tap threw down their guitars and decided to move to Hawaii. Nevertheless, the emotional and spiritual audacity of Morningbell’s latest is absolutely undeniable. Not something to think about, something to digest like the little bites of music we consume without a second thought on a daily basis. No, Boa Noite is all about the experience. Close your eyes, plug in your best pair of earphones, and surrender yourself.

Artist Website
Album Stream/Bandcamp

Track Listing
1. Yes Wonderful Things
2. Listen
3. We Have Eyes As Well As Ears
4. I Had A Dream
5. Boa Noite
6. Polonaise To Sunrise
7. Awake Awake Awake
8. You Needn't Have Bothered
9. Hush
10. Goodbye And Goodbye And Goodbye And Goodbye
11. Achille

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