It’s hard to say what’s more damning: The fact that San Francisco trio The Ebb and Flow seems to take this whole bat thing pretty seriously (the first song, “Sonorous,” is a two-part, nine-minute epic), or the fact that Sub Pop folkers Fruit Bats pretty much beat them to it a few years ago. Yeah yeah, I get it – bats use sounds to help them get around, and indie rockers use sound to … hell, forget it.
And yet part of me actually hopes that the bat motif is a product of some Banhart-ian longbeards feeding off Frisco’s emerging whatever-folk community. Because, say what you want about Devendra and company, it wouldn’t be terrible to see a little unity from a city in the throes of its first relevant scene since Quicksilver Messenger Service and Jefferson Airplane were hot tickets.
It wouldn’t be terribly difficult to lump the folks in The Ebb and Flow in with their urban brethren. Parts of the deceivingly morbid “Country Verses” sound straight out of some acid-folk fakebook, and the playful chants of “Sweet Southern Harmony” would make great campfire singalong fodder. The comparison is mostly unfair, however, as E&F’s music is more concerned with filling space and, well, rocking a little, than anything usually associated with the West Coast folk trend.
As a result, Time to Echolocate is more dynamic than recent Frisco releases, but it lacks any real personality. E&F is, for lack of a better qualifier, an indie-rock band, and it brings with it many of the tricks that tag implies. Rigid electric guitars cut through the second half of “Sonorous”; a nondescript sound bite from some bygone television show closes “Sweet Southern Harmony.” The interlude that splits the album – a gleeful horn orgy that marks the band’s most sonically interesting moment – is nearly ruined by the industrial blasts the tear through its closing seconds.
Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with being an indie-rock band, even one that’s not particularly original. Sam Tsitrin, who sings lead on half the tracks here, throws out a sinuous vocal melody on “Body and Soul (Bonnie and Saul)” to overcome its pedestrian arrangement. Roshy Kheshti turns in her best performance on “Framer Framed,” sounding somewhat righteous over harsh organ stabs. The galloping horns that highlight “See You in the Fjords” are refreshing from a band that too often seems content chugging along on electric guitar chords. Case in point: the uplifting chorus of Kheshtis on “Sweet Southern Harmony” is rendered nearly mute by several minutes of unmemorable guitar acrobatics.
The two also split time on the lyrics, and they come off as uneven at best. Kheshti, for instance, cashes the caveman-simple exposition, “When I grow up / I’ll be free / I’ll forget Tennessee / I will move to the big city / I will make that big money” and comes up golden, but her riot-grrrl romp in “Framer Framed” feels forced (“He takes credit when credit is due / She writes the plot and she turns the stew”). Tsitrin is no better: “I haven’t heard a human thought / Haven’t seen a friendly face / With freckles and a tooth parade for several years” isn’t a bad line, but if you’re having trouble imagining a melody to tether it to, you’re not alone – Tsitrin couldn’t either.
There’s plenty to like about Time to Echolocate, but it’s tough to remember exactly what that is when the disc isn’t physically spinning. E&F leaves no aftertaste, nothing to hang your hat on, save for Three Ring Records’ gorgeous cardboard packaging. It’s difficult to chastise a band for committing no crime, unless you consider too similar arrangements, tempos, and song lengths punishable crimes.