In the belly of the beast

Noah and the Whale singer shares his thoughts on music critics and more

Dave Kirby | Boulder Weekly

There`s a bit of peril involved in mining this meme too deeply, but as Noah and the Whale slide a little awkwardly out of their charmingly twee folkie-pop dungarees into shinier, smooth-surface synth-pop threads, it may not be much of a surprise that their third long player, Last Night On Earth, comes across as a collection of bus-window epiphanies and unforced glimpses of puny redemption, plainspoken and seldom aspiring to folk-poet ironies or cleverly understated epistles of revelation.

That sort of Grand Statement-ism wouldn’t suit this London quintet very well, anyway. Charlie Fink’s songwriting has always pivoted on the carefully drawn borders between first-person reflection and third-person observation, a search for little more than a subtle moment, or a fleeting image, or a small lesson learned momentarily.

Still, though, if Last Night on Earth, with its infectious leadoff single “L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.” is a plainsong tome on growth and growing up and growing away, delivered in two-syllable simplicity, it also represents a band three releases into a good, solid career, willing to extend, at the least, its musical reach.

“I think we wanted to challenge ourselves with this record,” Matt “Urby Whale” Owens told Boulder Weekly over a shaky and reluctant transatlantic phone line a couple of weeks ago. “We’re very reactive to what we’re listening to at the time. We don’t really write a lot tunes and then edit it down to an album. We tend to write for the album, so we’ve got it pretty well down beginning to end. At the beginning of last year, we were listening to a lot of classic American rock — Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen, guys like that. And then, by later in the year, we were on to other things. Brian Eno, Tom Waits. So the advantage to taking a long time to do this record — our other records we made in a few weeks, and this one we had six months — was that we could absorb all those things and let the songs take on a sort of new life.”

Before we got Urby on the phone, we thought, just for grins, to see whether their growth spurt had seduced or alienated the tastemakers, stateside and back in the Realm. Bands that survive the freshman blush of critic love long enough to release a major label third offering are likely to earn some attention in the rags.

The self-appointed guardians of indie-cool at Pitchfork all but threw up on the thing, basically berating Fink and the band for indifferently hawking watered down, carelessly derivative drek unworthy of pimple-goo commercials, while the notoriously corrosive scribes at NME, legendary merchants of toxic nastiness the dudes at Pitchfork could only dream about, absolutely loved the thing.

Maybe we need to get out more, but we were perplexed.

Urby wasn’t impressed much, either way, laughing at the notion that the NME could like, well, anything.

“Yeah … interesting. Ha! I think, ultimately, when it comes to that kind of thing, if you make the record that you want to make … it’s like, you’ve got albums

that are favorites, and someone tells you that they’re crap, or criticize them; you don’t care. And we’re very fortunate; we make records totally unconstrained by record labels and stuff like that. No outside influences. And so once we’ve finished a record, it’s ours; if someone doesn’t like it, we really don’t care. We make music as good as we can make it.

“Now,” Urby continues, “I think if you compromise in that, you try to make a record you hope people will like, then you might take criticism for that.” And even if the common perception is that they became L.A.-produced pop product all of a sudden, Urby takes an unsurprisingly longer view of the band’s five-year career, and borrows from his own experience as a lover of records.

“The thing is, our records are very different,” Urby says. “So, there is an element of, say, someone who likes the darker, more personal lyrics of the first record might not take to this. … The problem is, there’s two things. Most of my favorite records, I wasn’t a big fan of when I first listened. And the same with my favorite artists. They grow on you. The artists I like best are the ones where I’m never quite sure what they’re going to put out next.

“And the thing is, when I listen to some of my favorite albums, it wasn’t until the fourth listen, the fifth listen, when it finally hit me and I became obsessed with it. So when the guys are reviewing albums, I don’t know how many times these guys actually listen to albums before they write about them.”

But life goes on. And America — the stages, not the blogs and not the columns — awaits the band.

“It’s kind of an English dream, when you form a band, to just tour the States. Playing the LAs and the New Yorks, and everything in between.

“Growing up in an English band, it always seems sort of out-of-reach.”