Settlefish has been in a class all their own since their sophomore full-length, Plural of the Choir properly showcased their incredible versatility and ambitious songwriting. It's a shame Deep Elm didn't choose to pick up a U.S. release for their newest, Oh Dear!, which is actually about a year old now -- released in late 2007 on Unhip Records, from their own homeland of Italy. While Oh Dear! may not be as strong an effort as Plural, it's definitely another impressive and evolutionary step for a sorely underrated band.
Oh Dear! begins deliberately enough, with a rhythmic, slow pulse in "Head Full of Dreams," before an explosion of atmosphere affects the chorus. One might notice here that frontman Jonathan Clancy doesn't sound as immediately similar to Tom Delonge as he used to, and that's something that goes hand in hand with Settlefish themselves: The band-to-band comparisons are a bit less evident. You could consistently argue American Football and At the Drive-In straight-up for Plural, but Oh Dear! only bubbles up with those parallels on the occasion. Check out the Vaya-esque "I Go Quixotic!" with its devastating sonic flourishes, robotic vocal delivery and metallic clattering. There's also a greater deliberation among some tracks that make it easy to compare them to early Death Cab for Cutie or fellow Europeans Velveteen; nowhere is it more evident than with the minor electronic beats and interesting narrative of "Summer Drops," which make the track sound like something off DCFC's We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes. One nice surprise is when you expect a Modest Mouse-esque freakout with the opening bending and swaying notes of "Lonely Boy," but get something a little more restrained and sinister while still bearing a bit of tenseness.
What Settlefish is coming into, however, is occasionally difficult to nail down. It's something that's often playful and fun ("Balloons," "The Boy and the Light"), but a little moodier at other points ("I Go Quixotic!", "Lonely Boy"). Sometimes it's driven along by a steady, semi-dancey beat; other times they drop in bits of tasteful keyboard. It's always full of dynamic atmospheres, though, that amazingly punch through completely modest production levels, and that's something the band must be given kudos for. The swirls in a song like "Slowly Moved On" are so subtle you barely notice them until Clancy is melodically rambling over such fits of pretty fuzz.
There's a whole lot of head-twisting turns and changes going on during Oh Dear!, but much of it doesn't result in cross-sections that were as compelling or exciting as Plural, unfortunately. Simply put, there aren't as many moments that you wait in anticipation for. If Plural was a practice in pleasurable patience and ragged ruckuses of rigid repetition, Oh Dear! is an oddly demanding oral diversion.
I've dropped a lot of big names in this review, but remain assured Settlefish bear a much more subtle nature than the more mainstream tendencies of the above-mentioned. We've been trying to stress this for years, and Oh Dear!, despite being only the band's second-best release or so, is only another indicator: Settlefish is one of Italy's best musical exports, and you're missing out on some wistful, beautifully organic and feel-good indie rock by not hearing them.
Head Full of Dreams
I Go Quixotic!
The Boy and the Light