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I Like Trains

The Shallows


[I Like Records; 2012]



By ; July 27, 2012 


Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOG

Like all of the full-length releases by English band I Like Trains, The Shallows is a concept album. Previously their subject matter has been historical events, such as the Great Fire of London, the assassination of British Prime Ministers and monarchs, and the sinking of a vessel that carried Christmas trees. It’s pretty specific stuff that can benefit from a bit of further study once the records have finished. And the Leeds quartet never shy away from doing the research either, nor from painting a full picture; their 2007 album Elegies To Lessons Learnt came complete with four b-sides that told stories from the album from a different perspective. On their latest venture the subject matter is decisively modern in comparison, but still deep with possibility.

The Shallows shares it name with a Nicholas Carr book which ponders “What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains,” questioning if the seemingly infinite content on the web is destroying our ability to read and think deeply. I’ve not read the book, but it certainly sounds like a question well worth considering and exploring. I Like Trains obviously thought so too, as this is what they have devoted their album to exploring. While it might sound like interesting reading, one could be forgiven for thinking it doesn’t sound like the most engaging subject matter for an album.

The finished product is something that sounds clinical and analytical, but also disquietingly human. Before explaining that, it’s worth introducing lead vocalist David Martin first, who takes centre stage here with his monotonic baritone. His voice isn’t going to bowl anyone over, but it’s still alluring and wryly impressionable. He wades carefully between arcs in melody, investing himself in every sentiment, and selling every word without sounding like he’s singing for your attention or approval. It’s Martin’s voice combined with the rest of the band’s music that has the album coming off as something in between what you might and might not expect: soundscapes are often bleak, but not hopelessly so; it sounds mechanical, and even somewhat antiseptic, but also like it’s gradually coming to life. The Shallows presents the listener with a dimly-lit corridor that can be easily but uncomfortably walked through.

Let me go back to the subject matter. While The Shallows: The Book might pose questions about the effect of everything being on offer during the digital age, The Shallows: The Record doesn’t seem to directly deal with any kind of similar quandaries. Martin’s narrative is interesting, but hard to get a grasp of. You’ll hear recurring mentions of “the blind leading the blind,” “the looking-glass,” or vague mentions of sacrifice, but nothing ever feels entirely specific, location or character wise – a breakdown of what each song is about would be helpful. But this could be simply because I haven’t read the book. From excerpts and synopsises I’ve read, Carr doesn’t just consider his topic in a modern scenario, but instead refers back to thinkers like Plato, and considers thinking and ideas from all the ages. This sounds a lot more like the kind of material Martin and his band feed off of, dissecting the philosophers, thinkers, and writers of the past, and imagining the world through their eyes. This considered, though, it doesn’t mean that suddenly everything is clear. The book could well be the notes needed to fully understand and appreciate the album.

Still, Martin has a way of seeping into your skin, even if you’re not entirely sure what he’s referring to. His choruses are subtle and careful, perhaps even devious in their tone. “Don’t let your mask slip/ Don’t you dare/ lecture us in tongues” he sings on “In Tongues,” like he’s biting his own, while on “Beacons” he quietly pleads “I held the world on my shoulders/ I had the public on my side,” like he’s defending himself against an accusation yet to made. When he’s not unfurling a vocal hook, he plays around with phrasing and intonation, putting strange emphasis on seemingly irrelevant lyrics. “Keep your eyes on the road, son” he sings on “The Hive,” in a tone that sounds both fatherly and murderous, while on the previously mentioned “In Tongues” he muses mysteriously “It’s in the friends that I keep/ It’s in the air as it leaves my lungs/ It’s in the words to the songs I will sing/ as you cut out my tongue” as an ominous synth track creeps into the picture.

On the point of the music, again, its significance leaves me at an in between spot. While not to lay waste to the talent of the other band members, or deem it as pointless, the music feels very much like a vehicle for Martin’s lyrics, a means by which to carry his songs forward. That said, it undoubtedly helps create the sense of tension and trepidation Martin seems to be wanting to convey. Compared to previous outings, the tone here is somewhat more subdued, relying more light washes of dark colours. When it does brighten up slightly on the likes of “The Hive” or “Reykjavik,” it still feels chained down by a sense of melancholy. It’s hard to think of reference points for the band as they’ve managed to form their own particular aesthetic which seems to take cues from a variety of other artists. “Mnemosyne” starts off like a Foals track, but soon becomes its own creature. Elsewhere you might find echoes of Scott Walker, or hints of other gloomy English indie-rock bands like Editors and White Lies, but you’ll never be quite able to put your finger on anything.

What we’re left with then is a concept album that’s not the easiest to follow, but still interesting to try to. It’s absorbing if you want it to be, and easy to slip in and out of. The album even loops well, allowing it to be played over and over without becoming stale. Instead it ebbs and flows gently, never lashing out, or breaking into a frenzied charge. Some might not like this, and there are moments when you’re left wishing the band would do more with what they build up (“In Tongues”), but there’s also beauty in the way other songs trickle the music out step by step (“The Turning of the Bones,” “Beacons”). But considering the way in which I Like Trains go about making their detailed and often historically-influenced music, it’s hard to know exactly what to want or expect from the band. It’s just as easy to leave The Shallows with a casual satisfaction as it is to finish it longing for something more. As Martin says on “Reykjavik,” “Enough is never enough.”


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