by Carter Delloro
It’s hard being a guitar band these days. The classic two guitars/bass/drums lineup is beginning to feel more and more anachronistic as new groups either take advantage of technology (as with the recently-reviewed Equals, who have synths and samplers), or scale down into streamlined variations on the classic model (as with the recently-interviewed and reviewed duo Taken By Savages). Whalers, however, are a classic band. They have a classic lineup (though they have five people since their vocalist is strictly a vocalist), and a classic sound. They do what they do well, and a couple of the tracks on their new debut LP, Submarine Sun, showcase their songwriting and performance talents, but it’s also just hard to get excited about traditionalists right now.
You might look around and point to any number of Austin bands that are exceptions to this rule. Whitman is the most obvious one that jumps to my mind. They, too, had a pretty classic sound, and they might have suffered a lot more had they not been blessed with the charismatic lyricism/delivery/stage presence of Ram Vela, a true talent. They crafted a very particular blue-collar identity, and took you on raucous adventures in their songs. They were simultaneously anachronistic and relevant.
Other Austin guitar bands craft their own identities that help excite audiences who might be otherwise tired of a traditional sound. Think about how easy it is to describe Quiet Company (spiritual power pop), Bright Light Social Hour (bluesy rock), Marmalakes (dynamically literary), Pure X (mellow and spacey), Shivery Shakes (garage rock with an attitude), A Giant Dog (melodic punk), and on and on.
Whalers are too many things. They have a lot of great ideas and great pieces, but they don’t always coalesce. When they do, the group is on. “Battleships” is a great lead track and first single. It’s got a dissonant Strokes-y vibe, bolstered by great rhythm section work from Amir Mozafari and Hound Dog Bertram, while singer Gus Smalley delivers the kind of performance Brandon Flowers wishes he could still muster. All over this song, Whalers is firing on all cylinders.
Elsewhere, they come together in bits and pieces. There’s the Django Django-esque rhythm guitar and drum groove in the verse of “New Big Wong” or the sweet lead guitar in the chorus of “Boats II.” “Bon Vivant” is a surf-inspired number that comes together fairly well, but it’s telling that the clearest lyrics in it are “It won’t make sense.”
The other song I actually really like is “Garrison Keillor.” It’s a patient mid-tempo track that’s driven by some great synthesizer/guitar interplay. But it’s actually about listening to Garrison Keillor on a road trip, which might be the most boring thing I could think of doing. (It’s probably about some deeper truths about growing up and nostalgia and such, but I can’t really get past the part where they listen to Garrison Keillor.)
Whalers certainly have the pieces, but they are still putting them together. Alternately, they can be surf-rock or psych-rock or indie-rock, and once they figure out which of those they want and hone in on that sound, they could be a force. At that point, we’ll look back on Submarine Sun as containing the nuggets of what they blossomed into.