The A.V. Club reviews a lot of records every week, but some things still slip through the cracks. Stuff We Missed looks back at notable releases from this year that we didn’t review at their time of release.
At their best, Balmorhea’s albums evoke particular spaces. On the group’s 2009 release, All Is Wild, All Is Silent, the songs speak of the wide-open continent the early pioneers might have encountered, while 2010's Constellations is filled with passages that evoke the rolling waves of the sea, particularly when viewed through the eyes of some 19th-century sailor on a whaling ship, complete with sextant and compass.
That approach made for beautiful music, but it could also seem too backward-looking at times, particularly with the band’s pseudo-classical, lyrics-free music. The band’s latest release, Stranger, is notable less for the group’s increased instrumentation and experimentation and more for the way the album’s songs seem to speak to the modern cityscape, with its endlessly repeating rushes of people and traffic and noise.
The songs on Stranger copy that rush, then modify it into music. Most of the tracks begin in an endlessly repeating pattern, then gradually deconstruct and reconstruct that pattern until the melody inherent within all of its pieces is evident. Melody builds up and over the pattern, then modifies, then drifts away until a new piece can take center stage, or a new voice entirely can come to play. (On opening track “Days,” that new voice is a steel drum, used to accentuate the buzz of the usual guitars and other stringed instruments at the song’s base.)
That approach can occasionally seem problematic, as on “Fake Fealty,” in which that drone nearly overpowers, until a vibraphone melody manages to overcome it. “Artifact,” meanwhile, is about as hard-edged as a Balmorhea track can get, with genuine electric guitars and the sound of reverb echoing through the carefully constructed soundscapes. And “Shore” has the feel of a half-remembered dream of some other place, the quiet respite amid the busy hustle of the rest of the city, the park set aside by the founders to promote such quiet contemplation.
It builds to a close on “Pilgrim,” one of the best tracks Balmorhea’s ever written, and a song that wouldn’t have felt out of place on either of the prior two albums. All three of these albums have suggested a journey into some great unknown, but in “Pilgrim,” the band evokes the feeling of reaching the destination, the farthest point, then turning back toward home.