Taking its name from novelist Jack London’s 1904 seafaring adventure, Sea Wolf has evolved organically from its hermetic origins in Alex Brown Church’s living room into a muscular, full-bodied musical entity with passion to burn. After adopting the sobriquet, Church burst onto the music scene in two-fisted fashion with the EP, Get to the River Before It Runs Too Low, and the subsequent full- length debut album, Leaves in the River, about which Interview magazine observed, "His music is both erudite and unvarnished, a blend of swirling melodies, literary balladry and damaged art-rock composition."
And now, Church’s singular vision has led to the creation of the eloquent and
expansive new album White Water, White Bloom, which not only fulfills the
immense promise of the initial musical diptych but conjures up its own
cosmology. This is one of those rare and mysterious records wherein, the first
time you hear it, you can’t shake the feeling that it’s always been part of the
soundtrack of your life. You intimately know its ups and downs, its melodies and
cadences, its settings and characters.
"I couldn’t have known beforehand what the next record would sound like," says
Church, "but I did know I wanted it to be bigger, with a band feel, rather than
another series of intimate confessionals."
A song cycle set against the changing of seasons, this timeless work unfolds
like an epic poem, yet resonates with thematic elements that speak, elliptically
yet unmistakably, to the world we live in. Pulsing with evocations of nature at
its most elemental, Church’s songs are flooded with vivid imagery, carried along
on torrents of sounds as majestic as a mountain stream swollen with the bracing,
crystalline runoff of spring’s first warming breath. What’s more, he sings these
songs with newfound power, the result of extensive roadwork behind Leaves in the
River, while deepening the mesmerizing expressiveness with which he made his
Opening track "Wicked Blood" begins with what sounds like an orchestra tuning up
before surging to glorious life, the rhythm section shaping itself into a
propulsive groove accented by delicate piano notes, carrying along the opening
chapter of the saga: "We met in the East/ poured in like a flood," Church
begins, shadowed by the breathless wheeze of an air organ, "You’re the
whispering kind/dark sapphire blood/A vision of veils/all shimmery white/like a
backdrop of sails/all aglow from the light/of the wonder behind/at a starry
night." And with that, we’re off into an adventure of cinematic immediacy, as
befits the sensibility of this onetime film student, who’s clearly found his
natural medium of expression.
"Lyrically," says Church, "I like to incorporate what one would construe as
classic imagery, and even infuse the songs with elements of mythology, but also
delve into more contemporary themes. I’m interested in the way words look and
feel, not just when you hear them but also when you read them."
Church’s verbal acuity is mated with bold, vibrant soundscapes set off with
thundering drums, stabbing, reverb-soaked electric guitars and ghostly
keyboards, resulting in such memorable pieces as the mythological tale "Orion &
Dog," ornamented with strings right out of a John Ford western; the folk-noir
fable "O Maria!"; the surging title song, burning with Byronic heat; the fever-
dreamscape "Spirit"; the muted, idyllic, "The Orchard"; the Dylanesque roundelay
"The Traitor"; and the closing "Winter’s Heir," with its life-embracing
"When I write a song," says Church, "for me it’s always associated with a
specific place and time. For example, ‘Orion & Dog’ was written during the
summer, and ‘Winter’s Heir’ is about coming out of the long Montreal winter and
experiencing a sense of rebirth."
The album has a back story: "I met and fell in love with a girl in Montreal
while on tour with Irving, and just before signing with Dangerbird," Church
recalls. "And then, while touring behind the Sea Wolf record, I spent most of my
time off in Montreal with her. Apart from ‘Wicked Blood’ and ‘O Maria!,’ which I
wrote in Los Angles, everything on White Water was written in Montreal, holed up
in our little apartment, a block away from the river. That was all of last fall,
winter and spring, so I was very much influenced by that experience, and a lot
of the record is set there in my immediate surroundings, along with remembrances
of being home on the West Coast."
White Water, White Bloom was recorded at the Omaha studio of Mike Mogis (Bright
Eyes, M. Ward, Monsters of Folk), with Church handling vocals, acoustic and
electric guitars, as well as some of the air organ and pump organ sounds that
were such a big part of the sonic signature of the earlier records. Joining him
were the three core members of the six-piece Sea Wolf touring lineup:
keyboardist Lisa Fendelander, bassist Ted Liscinski and drummer Joey Ficken. The
remaining slots were filled by Mogis on lead guitar and an assortment of other
instruments, with his Bright Eyes cohort Nate Walcott filling the role of the
cellist, arranging strings for a quartet, sometimes working from cello parts
originally created by Catherine Odell, who’d been part of the initial Sea Wolf
touring lineup, with Church’s input.
They arrived with a full set of song demos, providing a detailed blueprint for
their subsequent expansion into widescreen anthems that reshape the classic
aspects of traditional folk, folk rock and chamber pop—but these bucolic
elements are intercut with aggressive bursts of raw emotion sharpened to a
serrated edge—making for a rich, vibrant sound that is virtually unprecedented.
Church is working in the most personal of mediums, and that results in constant self-questioning. "Every time you make a record," he says, "you invariably think, ‘Oh, I wish I’d done this differently,’ or ‘Next time I want to do this.’ But if you get to the point where you don’t think that, then it’s time to quit. In terms of aspirations, as long as I’m constantly having new ideas and finding new places to explore with the music, I’ll be satisfied."