Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Go tell it

Speck Mountain
Some Sweet Relief
Score: 9

Sin and souls, fire and water, night and day, shame and glory: These recurring themes mark the second album by Chicago band Speck Mountain. Some Sweet Relief, at the nexus of space rock and gospel, is riddled with religious signifiers, yet it carries the mystique of the implicit. You'll find no shouts of "hallelujah!" here. The oomph of gospel bursts out in lead singer Marie-Claire Balabanian's drawn-out notes --- the ooooohs and the ohhhhhs and the i-iii-iiiiiis --- and in the throaty affirmations of multi-instrumentalist Kate Walsh's saxophone.

Mostly, though, there's a sense of patience and perseverance in the music and in the pace at which Balabanian sings. It's not quite tranquility, because these are songs of internal conflict and struggle, as well as of reflection, but there's a constancy to her voice. Even when she's singing about "this worried mind," she sounds supernaturally reassured.

Organ, electric piano and layered backing vocals provide overtones of reverence, while the former also supply the drone and flutter that make up the general haziness customary to space rock. "Angela," one of two instrumental or near-instrumental songs, repeats the woman's name like an incantation: "Angela / oh Angela / Angela / oh Angela."

Some Sweet Relief traffics in atmosphere. Its power is one that slowly builds over the course of its 39 minutes. The organ's swirl is enveloping; the electric piano tingles and twitches; the bass purrs with warmth; the dual guitar lines are resonant and tenderly probing.

Balabanian and multi-instrumentalist Karl Briedrick wrote the songs, which all seem to spring from a deep, personal place illuminated by intense examination. In that place they found disgrace and infidelity, but strength and righteousness, too.

The title track details a plea for mercy: "There was a day / oh how that sun did shine / I know that day / it's no longer mine / some sweet relief / lay your hand on me." In "Backslider" --- that's preacher parlance for returning to your sinful ways --- Balabanian tells of her partner's unfaithfulness. "My guy's got a wanderin' eye," she confesses. But "I Feel Eternal," by comparison, testifies of an inner fortitude, one borne of no less than the soul.

In a time when organized religion is on the downfall but spirituality is thriving, this album captures the zeitgeist. In a poll published in April, Newsweek found in a survey of 1,003 Americans that 30 percent describe themselves as "spiritual" rather than "religious," an increase of 6 percent since 2005.

The American Religious Identification Survey, conducted last year and involving more than 54,000 respondents, showed a hemorrhaging of mainline Christian churches.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, a project of the Pew Research Center, noted in its U.S. Religious Landscape Study that there was a significant rise in the number of unaffiliated people, hitting 16.1 percent. The study, conducted in 2007, involved more than 35,000 Americans.

This album is not worship music, but it feels like holy music. The symbology of Some Sweet Relief --- the use of rivers, sunshine and flame, rather than crosses and pulpits and churches --- lends the album a free and open identity that suggests an earlier, noninstitutionalized faith, one as pure as the elements.

As Speck Mountain strive for communion with the divine, we may be joining them.


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