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Rhythm & Views

Or, the Whale

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Recent comparisons of Or, the Whale to the Carter Family are presumably due to the wonderful male-and-female vocal harmonies shared by the two groups. But Or, the Whale--in which all seven members sing--actually plays music that sounds more like Byrds-Burritos-brand twangy rock than old-timey country.

Which would have been nice, sure, but this glorious debut album by the San Francisco combo is perfect in its own right--rockin' contemporary alt-country feet planted firmly in the past and the future.

The album begins with a great tune, the energetic Jayhawks-style kicker "Call and Response," so some listeners might prepare for those that follow to decrease in quality. But each track gets better and better, such as the gloriously morose two-stepper "Isn't She Awful," which would make Hank Williams proud; the oddball "Crack a Smile," which makes singer Alex Robins sound as if he's singing through the haze of a slightly off-frequency radio; a breakup song, "Gonna Have To," that skips along on an atypically happy beat; and the beyond-lovely closer, "Fight Song," which boasts brilliant pop-rock harmonies.

Make sure to check out "Death of Me," an artful examination about translating emotions into songwriting. Robins sings, "Ever since we parted ways, my notes are flat / And I can't write a decent melody at that / All my major chords keep drifting into blue / Oh, tell me, what's a country singer supposed to do?" With these songs, Or, the Whale proves they know exactly what to do.

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