The Silent League
Of Stars and Other Somebodies
ere’s a little quiz to help determine whether the second Silent League album is for you:
1. Do you enjoy late-period Mercury Rev records?
(a) I certainly do.
(b) God, no.
(c) I believe companies should do more to reduce air-polluting emissions.
2. Seriously, even All Is Dream?
(a) Yeah, totally.
(b) Haha, no. I was kidding all along, I hate that mawkish bullshit.
(c) I recycle as much waste as I can and even use the correct bins.
3. Come on, the guy’s vocals sound totally ludicrous on that record. Are you sure you like it?
(a) Yes! I love his voice, it’s endearing.
(b) OK, you got me. It’s a bit of a stinker.
(c) The G8 summit should spend more time discussing the problems of global warming.
How did you do?
Mostly (a)’s: congrats! You’ll probably dig this record.
Mostly (b)’s: congrats! You’ll probably loathe this record.
Mostly (c)’s: congrats! You took the wrong test.
This reductionist exercise rings broadly true. Predictably though, it’s not quite that simple. Although Justin Russo does sing spookily like the Rev’s Jonathan Donahue (perhaps having absorbed this skill while touring with the band), he stops short of the maddening affectations settled on by the time of The Secret Migration. This is great news for anyone who feels that although a spoonful of sugar can help the medicine go down, being force-fed a sack of the sweet, white granules through a massive funnel is probably a bit much.
Overall, the tracks on Of Stars and Other Somebodies fall into two distinct camps. There are the “voice and piano” numbers, which echo around sadly, shuffling in a sad sack fashion until you take the hint and start feeling bad for yourself. Then there’re the sweetly-melodic pieces, augmented by strings, horns, or whatever other chamber-pop instruments are at hand. Despite tumbling around like a rampant band of kittens ridden by tiny, adorable woodland animals, most of these songs also harbor a dark heart. Like being based around an aeroplane crashing into people (“Victim of Aeroplane”). Or somebody unable to fulfil a promise (“Out of Reach”). Presented in this cheerful manner, however, it’s easy to be lured into the belief that these lyrical themes are blessings, rather than obvious downers.
No point pretending any differently—annoyance is likely to be the biggest hurdle to cross before finding enjoyment with this album. Even though it’s far from Donahue-at-his-worst, Russo’s voice could still irritate; and should you be unaccustomed or unreceptive to large doses of syrupy melodrama, the attack of borderline audio schmaltz might seem overwhelming. Yet, if such things bother you not a jot; if your soul is pure and steeped in optimistic romance and basically as twee as can be; if you can let the sounds drift past in a fluffy haze…well…all will seem perfectly lovely. When surrounding an open heart in orchestral richness, the record can feel momentarily terrific.
But here’s where it all goes slightly wrong. It’s not just certain song narratives which conceal a nasty secret. In passing discussions with Stylus’ chief mastering scientist (Mr. Nick Southall), the stalwart adversary of over-compression was seen to remark: “It's too loud and flat; the bass distorts and clips, the drums move things around in an odd way. Guitars shift out of the way when a snare strikes—the minimal voice and piano or voice and guitar bits had no sense of realism or intimacy, etc. Just textbook over-compression.” Which seemed, at first, like the justifications of a man who simply didn’t relish the Silent League all that much.
Alas though, he was correct. Brutal, but correct. Repeated, attentive listening reveals these mixing problems in full. The questions of intimacy are subjective, but the bass does noticeably have a tendency to distort, the record lacks the dynamic variation it clearly strives for, and where space should exist between multiple instruments there’s occasionally a muddy, indistinct blur. Which leaves something of a dilemma. Not everyone will hear these things. Others might hear them and simply not care, or even appreciate the clipping in some perverse way. Assuming you were won over by the album before any mastering issues crept into your perception, these issues shouldn’t be enough to completely crush your spirit. But, once heard, they play upon the ears thereafter—a constant and disappointing menace.
By this stage, the checklist quiz questions just keep mounting up. A strong appeal is definitely there for fans of recent-era Mercury Rev or equivalent sounds. This same audience can most likely engage with twelve tracks of unabashed soppiness without flinching (myself amongst them). Yet anyone who remains after that crude elimination process will still have to contend with some questionable mastering decisions, which are at best puzzling, at worst ruinous. Then, and only then, are we left with a select group who will experience this album with a smile. Frankly, it feels like a caveat too far.