It’s all about the layers for Portland band The English Breakfast on its new CD, “Shifting Seas.” Layers of rhythm, fuzzed-out guitar, vocals and keyboard noodlings are all piled on top of one another, shaken up and re-assembled into a unique collection of sounds and songs. And while the results are often mixed, they’re never boring.
The album opens with “To the Spring,” which starts as a series of repeated electronic tones that segue into more organic and traditional sounds of guitars, bass and an up-tempo drumbeat.
The make-or-break factor on this song (and most of the album) for some listeners may be the vocals of singer-guitarist Ira Sterling. They’re often intentionally distorted, split into ragged harmonies and sometimes delivered with a certain sense of ironic detachment. Fans of lo-fi music will be used to this sort of thing, but listeners accustomed to more traditional rock and pop styles may find this kind of singing a little off-putting.
The humorously titled “We’ll Make Good Compost” has a sort of Radiohead feel to it, as it starts with more electronic tones and Sterling sometimes sings in a Thom Yorke-style falsetto. The shuffling rhythm and buzzing guitars also recall the work of ’90s darlings Pavement, and fans of that band who’ve been missing that unpolished indie-rock sensibility will find plenty of sounds to keep them satisfied on “Shifting Seas.”
Still, the album is not all rough edges and feedback. The record is dotted with pretty instrumental passages, such as the gorgeous acoustic guitars on “Ode to Olive” and “Remember the Ginko,” the lilting mandolin on the title track and the simple but hypnotic mood of “Delta Bill.” The singing and vocal blending on “The Other Side of the Coin” is actually quite lovely, and the song structure is fairly traditional for indie rock. They even manage to throw in a hooky chorus.
That being said, experimentation is still the name of the game for The English Breakfast. And like all experiments, sometimes they fail.
“Elephants” develops from a simple bass drum and woodblock beat. Roto-toms, bongos and bass guitar are all added to the mix one by one, until the track builds into a complex swirl of tribal rhythmic sounds. It completely envelopes the listener — until the off-key vocals come in toward the end of the song and completely kill the mood.
And perhaps this is the point. One gets the feeling that The English Breakfast has no interest in capitulating to the whims of a complacent listener. There are moments throughout the album where it seems the band’s sole purpose is to jolt listeners out of their comfort zones, be it with an unexpected and abrupt change in musical style or a slightly off-key strand of harmony vocal that comes out of nowhere and seems like it shouldn’t be there.
Certainly not for everyone, “Shifting Seas” nevertheless manages to conjure a kind of compelling atmosphere. It isn’t always pleasant, and it may take multiple listens before one can even begin to scratch the surface of what the band is trying to get at.
But if one is willing to be adventurous, dive deep and let the sounds take over (jarring and cacophonous as they may be at times), The English Breakfast will leave you satisfied.
According to the band’s Facebook page, physical CD copies of “Shifting Seas” are coming soon. Stream the album for free or download it for the bargain price of $10 at theenglishbreakfast.bandcamp.com/album/shifting-seas. And be sure to keep up with the latest news on The English Breakfast at its website, theenglishbreakfast.com.
Rick Johnson is a freelance writer and radio host from Westbrook. He can be reached at [email protected]