Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Album Review: San Fermin - San Fermin

Album Rating: B+
Yale student of music Ellis Ludwig-Leone retreated to the mountains for six weeks and returned with a dissertation in hand. Granted, a dissertation set to music, as the result of his short retreat is now the debut of new indie-rock project San Fermin. Befitting the plight of grad students nationwide, the album's defining characteristic is how meticulously it has been fussed over. Its scope is grand, dealing with classical themes of youth and love through literary allusions thrown every which way. The music sounds engineered, every note, shift, and pang of heartache carefully calibrated against 20 other elements vying for competition. In the wrong hands, this could be a recipe for disaster, or worse, indifference, but somehow Ludwig-Leone and friends pull it off, finding the magic in the science.

At its core, San Fermin is about the Big Things —"lifeʼs top-shelf issues – youth, nostalgia, anxiety, unrequited love," as the band's official site puts it — but it would hardly matter if the songs themselves weren't massive. Ludwig-Leone receives help from a strong variety of voices from Allen Tate, Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig. They provide a good counterpoint to his own, a gravelly voice that sounds perpetually exhausted. On an album about the big themes, that distinctiveness is more often than not an asset, as Ludwig-Leone's voice lends it an existential gravity. Additionally, the songwriting and instrumentation do a splendid job of dramatizing the album's stories. The towering "Renaissance" starts things on the right foot, building from a lone piano to a moving reverie of trumpets, choir vocals, and strings. “Sonsick” begins on a slight but seething foundation of Sunday-best formality before the band's female vocalists imbue the bitterness with a little bit of hope and the song slowly unravels its melancholy into sparkle. In the song's own words, "It's a sunny kind of sickness," and the same can be said for San Fermin's particular flavor of gorgeously-rendered angst.

On the other hand, the album doesn't always skirt the issue of overindulgence. Its sprawling, novel-like layout is good in that it ties the album together and gives an emotional core to what could potentially be a very indulgent exercise in navel-gazing. Unfortunately, parts of the album (especially the lethargic midsection) drag when they need to soar, and there's a sense that it could have made a stronger statement if it were about 10 minutes shorter. This issue is somewhat rectified by the diversity, which keeps things from ever getting too sloggy: for a debut album, San Fermin has quite the impressive scope. The 17 tracks bounce from Coldplay-esque balladry to orchestral, rock, folk and every genre under the sun. It's not just experimentation for experimentation's sake, as each genre brings connotations and textures the band uses to create an immersive world across its seventeen tracks.

San Fermin is an album built on contrasts: there's a friction between order and chaos the band puts to good use. Early in the album, “Crueler Kind” pits heavenly vocals against grungy bass and saxophone, and the desperation that creeps into the vocals as the song progresses suggests that reality has overcome their bliss. “Casanova” is a comforting, gentle ballad, but the tangled hunks of strings behind the soothing voices raise tension. Contrasts are also baked into the conceptual aspects of the album. Take "Methuselah" and "Torero," two tracks that are only separated by a short piano bridge but take opposing ends of the age spectrum. "Methuselah," aptly named after the oldest person in the Bible, is a reserved guitar ballad that feels wistful but peaceful at the same time; "Torero" (a fancy word for bullfighter), on the other hand, reflects a youthful aimlessness, a despair that the song's stop/start rhythms, tangled heaps of strings and stormy guitar riffs all bring to chilling life. It's in the study of these blacks and whites where San Fermin truly shines: the way the band brings together different perspectives — often blurring the lines between them — brings a personal touch to the overarching concepts the album explores.

For all of the album's occasionally exhausting flaws, its enthusiasm and ambition rub off on the listener. From its inception to its composition, it's clear this is music with much on its mind, and the number of ideas that are executed here suggest the pupils are well on their way to becoming the masters.

Track Listing:
1. Renaissance!
2. Crueler Kind
3. Lament for V.G.
4. Casanova
5. Sonsick
6. Methuselah
7. At Sea
8. Torero
9. At Night, True Love
10. The Count
11. Bar
12. In Waiting
13. True Love, Asleep
14. Oh, Darling
15. In The Morning
16. Daedalus (What We Have)
17. Altogether Changed

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