Friday, 11 May 2012

"The Shallows" - I Like Trains Review

I Like Trains
The Shallows
I Like Records

I Like Trains last album, He Who Saw The Deep had a lot resting on it but thankfully a determination to prove themselves to the world shone through. A desire to push themselves, their sound and their ideas out of their comfort zone proved a success. With that reinvention, The Shallows could easily see them rest upon it. But no, once again we have something rather different which sees them spreading their talents into different, experimental sonic locations.

The Shallows lacks the mass crescendos of their earlier work, instead working in structures long and drawn with almost Krautrock rhythms, akin to where Mogwai went with some of their last album. The opening of first track Beacons is pure Phantom Band. The Turning Of The Bones, In Tongues and We Used To Talk all feature a dull 4/4 kick drum for their openings. Subtle electronics hang across the record, basslines synthesised, beats more metronomic and rattling. At first I thought this came across as a colder sound, akin to the sparser compositions of Joy Division but after a few listens that feels the wrong word. Although there is a lot of space between the sounds there is warmth sneaking through, a distant glow, but nothing more.

Tracks like Reykjavik combine the newfound optimism of album two with the new approach to a driving dynamic; a carefree cartwheel that reminds me slightly of Weird Fish / Apreggi by Radiohead. But generally the more electronica based approach to dynamics means songs have a less emotional impact and can wash over you, on first listen. Over time it is the sound palette and the mood of the album that works its way into your consciousness more than the songs themselves, which is an interesting accomplishment and one that certainly allows the album to slowly reveal itself, as all great albums do. 

Perhaps a weakness of the album is the lyrical side of things. Again, they have grown on me over the repeated listens. But there does seem to be a growing reliance on stock phrases such as “The Devil will find work for idle hands to do”, “We will burn in hell for this”, “As we spread our wings”, “We lay our cards out on the table” and “From the belly of the beast”. Sometimes it feels a song has grown to certain point where we need an insight, a “sting in the tail” and a loose phrase of little imagination appears. Whereas that technique has worked in the past (“They’ve built mountains out of molehills / Let them climb” from A Rook House For Bobby) it occurred when spoken in the form of the characters that populated their earlier historical work. It may well be that we have characters here, apparently expressing a fear of technology in our modern world, but its less clear and on occasion a beam of triteness comes through.

I respect I Like Trains determination to push themselves creatively and this record probably sets them in good stead for the future as being a group not to rest on a specific format. But it also makes it hard to rank against their other work. As it stands, the album is structured well, with the one-two of Beacons / Mnemosyne introducing this new style, the middle working with it but on a more familiar ground and the last two tracks moving the electronics into darker territory. In Tongues, the closing track ends up where we started, with a thumping bass note, repeated. Although the circular nature is interesting, I would have liked to have seen them let rip with a pure sonic assault at the conclusion; it is the only track that feels unfinished.

It’s a great record, though not exactly what I thought I wanted or at least expected from I Like Trains. As may become their trademark, it has left me puzzled as to where they will go next but also very keen to hear these tunes realised at their live shows. I suspect, after that, this album will suddenly make a lot more sense.

Dean Freeman

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