Hey Marseilles – To Travels and Trunks

Hey Marseilles - To Travels & Trunks

For a few years at the end of the 80’s and beginning of the 90’s, Seattle was the epicenter of a musical shakeup so remarkable that it eventually got tagged as the “Seattle Sound.”  Though it began as an unassuming indie movement, grunge eventually grew into a commercial giant (i.e. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains), thereby making alternative culture and mainstream culture one in the same.  This probably also explains why hack bands like Bush and Candlebox could and did sell millions of records.

By the dawn of the 21st century though, Seattle’s music seemed as bleak as its weather, with grunge’s glory days long gone and acts such as Creed and Matchbox 20 continuing to mangle and distort its original ethos.  Yet here we are in 2010, with a new generation of Seattle talent having raised the city’s reputation back up to what it once was.  The dress code – flannel, in particular – hasn’t changed much, but everything else has.  It’s difficult to imagine more recent standouts like Fleet Foxes, Sunny Day Real Estate, or Death Cab for Cutie playing shows with the likes of Mudhoney or The Melvins, but it’s undeniable that the Emerald City played a crucial part in the development of them all.

Given the city’s historical legacy, it’s got to be at least a little difficult these days as a band coming up through the ranks of the Seattle scene, what with all of the ubiquitous notoriety and legend.  If that were the case, you wouldn’t know it listening to the spellbinding music of <a href=”http://www.heymarseilles.com” target=”_blank”>Hey Marseilles</a>.  These University of Washington alums (Matthew Bishop, Philip Kobernik, and Nick Ward) were cutting their teeth at about the same time Fleet Foxes’ debut LP was making headlines in the summer of 2008, but their stellar debut, To Travels & Trunks, is only just now receiving the attention it deserves.  A confident blend of intimate lyricism, shimmering orchestrations, and exuberant melodies, this is the kind of album that comes along once in a very long while, and when it does, it’s usually brought to you by a bunch of seasoned veterans.

Hey Marseilles takes some of the most unorthodox instrumentations in popular music (accordion, viola, cello, and trumpet, to name a few) and transforms them into poignant and arresting chamber pop tunes.  You’d think anything with accordion in it would be downright kitschy in this context, but the sincerity with which they apply it results in the same sort of emotional resonance that you’d find with The Decemberists of Arcade Fire.  Listen to something like the elegiac title track, and you’ll quickly get the idea.

At no point does this album really rock, but if that’s what you were after, better go dig out your old Screaming Trees records; this is music for the NPR crowd, people who favor introspection and tender bursts of joy over brooding bombast.  “Cannonballs,” with its ornate guitar patterns, cello harmonies, and lyrics pertaining to the beautiful sadness of a failed relationship, feels like lullaby material before it’s ripped open by raucous interplay between the guitars and a trumpet.  Opening cut “Marseilles” sounds like the aural companion to a scene on a cold and rainy afternoon, a lonely expat sitting and contemplating life in a Parisian café while a player piano rolls out a series of twinkling melodies in the background.

Every track on To Travels & Trunks is a winner; there is absolutely zero filler here. “Rio” works well as a single – a bouncy 6/8 jam with infectious handclap rhythms.  Starkly arranged with just lead singer Matt Bishop’s vocals and an acoustic guitar, “Cigarettes” has some of the LP’s best lyrical imagery, including gems like “Jesus never smoked cigarettes / God never shot a gun / Mary mother never left her love for the cold California sun” and “I remember / how we danced out loud / in safe and solemn harbors / away from windswept towns.”  These tunes may lack the trite grand gestures of arena rock, but Hey Marseilles makes up for it with intricate song structures and enveloping textures; most of the album’s 13 tracks are at least five minutes in length and reveal just as many layers of sound.

If there was one song that stood tall above the rest, it might be “Calabasas,” a seven-minute epic that follows a lovely arc from a soulful croon to a blissed out jam led by the band’s string section.  It’s decidedly a show closer type of number, but I’m willing to bet the audience would be throwing up actually Bics instead of iPhone lighter apps.  These guys need to be heard – Trunks & Travels is one of the most transcendent albums of the year.