The Gulf – Chinatown

The Gulf

On Chinatown, The Gulf avoid pigeon holes and pull off an intriguing album both large in scope and largely consistent. Only problem is that the music’s deep eclecticism threatens to also avoid listeners’ preferences. But fear not – most folks will enjoy the creativity and freedom.

Despite the music’s many directions, Chinatown is not an experimental album by any means because the influences and instrumentation are deeply rooted in the past. Old-timey bar room staccato piano, a viola and trumpet gel with the obligatory percussion and guitar, making songs both familiar but fugitive. Songs materialize like a forgotten word on the tip of your tongue.

The band features six members but the story of the music is that of the two founders, Adam Brock and Adam Garland. During the last few years the two moved about a bit, taking residence and musical inspiration from different parts of the US. The result is music that is spaced out but very rooted. The tracks are slow or mid-tempo. The feel is frequently understated except for the occasional sing-along or open-chorded, distorted electric guitar. Vocals are prominent, so it’s a shame they aren’t better. The songs are often linear, divorcing the “verse / chorus / verse / bridge / chorus” format.

Track 1, “Walking”, tinkers around for 2:30 minutes, then re-invents itself as a mildly interesting venture. Next, “The Princess from Rome” evolves into a song that would fit on the next Arcade Fire release. Then, “Codeine”, although too long at 6 minutes, gives first suggestion of The Gulf’s macro-musicality. “You Fell for It, Too” is a gentle but gently bitter acoustic song of memory: “After finishing our college days / the turkey hawks came right away / to finish off the last of me and you / Like you were saying, life had meaning beyond me and you / don’t read into this, please just think of it as a present from me”. The next track, “S.F.P.”, is a decent song in which the refrain “So Fucking Perfect” is sleepily delivered after a slow build. “View Into Wall Scars” features a slide guitar, piano and straight ahead beat that lend the tune a southern charm reminiscent of Odelay-era Beck.

In an album full of understatements, one surprise is the soft but dramatic Spanish flamenco inspiration “Shot Simon” – a very enjoyable listen. “Wilma” could have been a Tom Waits song as it conjures smoky scenes full of shadows and beer suds. “Note To Garland” another favorite, sounds like a cross between Tom Waits and Pink Floyd: “Last time you screamed you didn’t make a sound / you got stood up / you’ve got to fall down / but you fall down like an anchor falls until you finally hit the ground”. “Chinatown” is the album’s center piece and best represents the album – if that’s possible. It pretends another Spanish inspired intro, then hits stride at 4 minutes and fully explores its 7-minute run. Unfortunately it’s followed by “Love is Strange”, an easily forgettable track. “Latinst But Not Least” fades in and out, but all too fast, unfortunately. It could have been interesting.

But the album as a whole is interesting. It isn’t catchy, loud, sweet, danceable, aggressive, or ambient so it better be interesting. It falls in a strange place somewhere between college radio and NPR. Folks with eclectic tastes would do well to investigate.