Even in the fantasy world of twee (a musical realm where unicorns play hopscotch with tree nymphs and everyone hugs all the time), there is a threshold where things become too quirky, too cute. Weathervanes, the debut album from NYC upstarts Freelance Whales, spends some of its time sitting on that line and the rest of it taking huge cotton candy shits on the wrong side of it.
The back-story on this band is a cheerful one: five folks from Hipstertown, Brooklyn make easy, fragile pop music out of gang vocals, boy/girl exchanges, banjos and a can-do attitude. After a few loft shows and street corner performances, their warm, inviting debut album drops in the midst of the Chillwave freeze out of '09-10 to remind us how to love. Or something like that.
Occasionally, one can hear where the hype is coming from. Take, for example, the tender "Location," a track that invokes comparisons to Sufjan Stevens and Ra Ra Riot, but with enough originality to stand on its own. Its galloping guitar riff and soft dual vocals gives way to a chanting chorus that is both catchy and heartwarming without being overly mushy.
The same can be said of "Hannah," a banjo-driven highlight that achieves an easy charm without being overly sappy, musically or lyrically. Sure, there is a little too much saccharine in lyrics like “I'll work on the limbs if you work on the torso / if it gets to be too much then you can lend a helping hand,” but the track is good enough that nits need not be picked.
Elsewhere, however, shit just falls apart. Too much of Weathervanes is unnecessary fluff. Of the album's 13 tracks, three are wordless moments of focus-less, meaningless noise and at least three other songs could have been trimmed down by a few minutes (especially "Ghosting" and "Generator (Second Floor)", two tracks that are in dire need of an editor). Sure, there are some good moments to be found throughout the album, but too often the songs run out of steam long before they are over, leaving the listener checking to make sure their shit isn't on repeat.
(Note to bands everywhere: I know that whole “sound cloud, repetitious fuzzy noise” thing is awesome in concert, but it is irritating as fuck on albums. Cut that shit out.)
The band also tends to hang a little too close to their influences. The aforementioned “Hannah” bites its rhyme scheme from a Sufjan Stevens' track and "Broken Horse" sounds like a straight-up Illinois B-side, vocal delivery and all. "Kilojoules" plays like a castrated Los Campesinos! Song and "Starring" is a little too Postal Service (if you are being kind) or Owl City (if you are being a dick) to stand on its own.
But mostly, the music is a little bit too sweet to be taken seriously. I mean, I'm all for good vibes and there is nothing wrong with bringing a little innocence to the game, but pairing wispy, longing vocals with lyrics like “How many stars you think you possess / how many in your butterfly net,” and “Please don't put your face into your hands / we could be friends” makes things hard to swallow.
A lot of Weathervanes is lacking in substance to make the album much more than an occasional indulgence (like a fried Twinkie) or a novelty album for snugglin'. Still, there are enough interesting ideas and charm to make Freelance Whales a band to look out for. They don't have it all together now, but there is evidence to suggest they might have it so some day.