Victory at Sea – The Good Night

Victory at Sea
The Good Night

It’s been baffling to know what to say about The Good Night, the third CD from Boston’s Victory at Sea. I liked their last album, Carousel, in theory. It had great cover art with that horse, frozen in time, and a sound like winter. But it left me wondering where the songs were. My first few listens to The Good Night left me feeling the same way. It’s definitely not bad, but there’s nothing that grabs you. It’s dark and sad, but I mean, life is sad enough without bummer bands, so big deal. More often than not, these bands can’t do justice to the real thing, anyway. It’s not necessarily much of a trick to bring someone down. I took the problem to a friend.
Alex: You don’t like Victory at Sea! Jon: Well, you know, it’s a little whiney for me. Alex: Have you heard their last CD? Jon: Yeah, but nothing really grabbed me about that one either. Alex: Yeah, but have you listened to it five times? You have to hear it at least five times.
I think I get her point. A lot of what is going to turn people off of Victory at Sea is apparent right away; Mona Elliott’s occasionally abrasive vocals, cranky lyrics over slow, dramatic arrangements, and a heavy mood that sets in right away. If they do one thing well, though, it’s their ability to establish a mood and that’s nothing to sneeze at. A lot of what may make someone ultimately grow to love them doesn’t sink in until you’ve given it a few serious listens.
“Mary In June,” the opening song, could have been lifted from the Carousel recordings. A somewhat clunky character sketch (“Mary walked out to a day before cars ruled the streets / She kept her doors unlocked, there’s really no reason to not”), it sets the tone for much of the disc’s first half. They layer on the drama, with piano, pained vocals, and violin, and either you’ll buy it or you won’t. “Canyon” and “Liar” sport big, deliberate choruses; the first works and the latter is one of the disc’s few real sore thumbs.
Somewhere around track five, and it’s the same place every time, things start to really pick up. It’s like the music kicks off its’ clunky combat boots and can finally move a little easier. Bolstered by the disc’s two strongest songs, “Sunny Days” and “A Song for Brian,” the second half feels remarkably lighter. It’s like when they start to sound like they aren’t struggling so hard with everything, the music comes a lot easier. “Sunny Days” is the most fully realized and accessible song I’ve heard from them; it’s reminiscent of the solid song craftsmanship of labelmates 27. “Far in the distance there’s a storm on its way / you can feel it in your bones, creaking like stairs under your feet,” works as effectively at setting the scene as any of her more self-conscious lyrics. On “A Song for Brian” her attention to minute detail helps to paint a full picture (“It’s nice to see you/ standing in the sun/ up against a car/ you’re just leaning/ looking happy”). The final song, “Firefly,” is so overwrought that it could serve as a sort of wink to end the album. With a whistling line that takes a tiny piece of melody from the Who’s “Getting In Tune” and a scene that’s hilariously morose (“It was summer, I remember going fishing for the first time / caught a small one, through [sic] it back / seagull flew by and ate it up / yeah, he died”) I’m pretty sure they’re trying to have fun.
Unlike a lot of bands out there making music that’s just way too easy to ignore, you can’t really put on Victory at Sea and not pay attention; you’ll react one way or the other. Superbly recorded by Andy Hong, he lets the music speak for itself. Each instrument sounds natural and up-front. It’s like he tries to catch the way things sound as honestly as possible so that the songs can stand or fall on their own. Largely unadorned to the point of almost being bare, their songs really aren’t out to win you over. Mel Lederman adds nice touches of Fender Rhodes and piano and new drummer Carl Eklof, less frantic and tense than former drummer Finn Moore who displayed a unique style on Carousel that would have been tough to copy anyway, provides a more solid foundation for the songs to sit on. The abrasiveness in Mona Elliott’s vocals becomes almost welcome after a few listens and good for them for sinking or swimming on them. They seem content with doing their own thing and while it will only really appeal to a specific set of listeners (who I imagine it will really appeal to), what they do they do better than most.