Starting up a long-distance project and trading files back and forth to create an album is nothing new. Most music fans would probably cite more electronic-tinged musicians of trying this digital-age method out, and -- depending on your tastes -- you could say that groups such as the Postal Service and Gnarls Barkley have executed this pen-pal technique to great collaborative effect.
Continuing this tradition is Able Baker Fox, a national collective consisting of Nathan Ellis, Mike Reed, Ben Reed, and Jeff Gentsterblum (the former being of Casket Lottery fame, the latter three comprising the excellent rythym section and vocals from the once-great Small Brown Bike). The group seems promising on more than just paper for those who remember the collaborative EP the two bands made years ago on Second Nature. The synthesis of the Casket Lottery and Bike’s styles made them both sound distinctly different while creating a very detailed and cohesive sound that was a gateway to Small Brown Bike’s defining moment, their Nail Yourself to the Ground EP. With all this creative momentum and finally reconvening to record a full-length as a proper band, the anticipation is properly high for this driving supergroup.
Opener “October” sets the scene for success. Trading vocals between Ellis on verses and Mike Reed on chorus, the song sounds like the prototype for the nü-screamo formula: a screaming verse leading into a melodic chorus. But this is to sell the band very short. Both singers actually have very good voices that move the music beyond any comparisons to the whiny genre. Ellis’s nasally, yearning bursts in contrast to Reed’s fuller, warmer register is a welcome combination. The song is great, and the final section is reminiscent of Our Own Wars-era Bike with its mighty outro.
The vocal trading on “What Doesn’t Kill You” is to slightly lesser effect. The song’s slower tempo during the verse gives the listener a chance to hear some mediocre lyrics and Ellis’s quiet cooing is not his strongest asset. Reed’s chorus saves the song to some extent, but it all lacks the interesting instrumentation of “October,” which shows the band's ability to hang in with the technical tunefulness of Burning Airlines.
Impressive enough is Fox’s attempt to try their hand at Tool’s bass-riff rock. “Twenty Centuries” starts off sounding like something off Undertow. However, the group gets caught creating some mighty filler on Voices. “Face on Fire” starts off in interesting 5/4 time but fails to captivate with its slightly annoying vocal drab. When they aren’t experimenting with time signatures (which is not often), the songs get to be mid-tempo, merely average affairs. “Palindramatics” is only slightly interesting, offering the drums-can-make-average-songs-sound-interesting approach Hey Mercedes often took. Its outro is too quick and fireless to compare to the album’s excellent opener.
Able Baker Fox may release some interesting stuff in the future. One will hear the possibility in the music, especially if you were a fan of Small Brown Bike or Casket Lottery. They take a small chance on “Folding Pocket Blades,” which sounds as though Ben Reed sings on. This song will either take you in or spit you out depending on whether you hear Ben’s vocals as yelping or creative stretching; the band wisely serves it as a sampler, cranking it out and leaving it under 2 minutes. The closer, “Whispering,” is possibly the album’s strongest statement. On the group chorus, they sing, “Hey / don’t stop / take a look at what you’ve got / Did you hear what your heart is whispering? / Are you listening? / Why aren’t you listening?” and the effect is uplifting.
Ultimately, Voices may not satisfy those who enjoyed the aforementioned Bike/Lottery EP; hands down, the groups nailed it on that release and showed how interesting the instrumental segments of their songs could really be. Though this debut will probably not gain as many fans as those two bands did in their respective lifespans, the strong points convince us that there is still time.