The buzzed-about folk-rock group Noah & The Whale brings emotion on their debut, Peaceful, the World Lays Me Down. Born from London brothers Charlie and Doug Fink (but having included, at times, Laura Marling and Emmy the Great), Noah & The Whale certainly put themselves out there on Peaceful, but it is the instrumentation that is where they excel.
After the high-tempo pluck-folk of opener “2 Atoms in a Molecule”, Peaceful hits an early high point with the grander alt-country of “Jocasta”, especially thanks to the violin of Tom Hobden. The strongest aspect of Noah & The Whale is curiously not their guitar or voice, but the strings and horns. Time and again, one or the other raise the level of a track, whether the sad alt-folk of “Do What You Do” or following “Give a Little Love” (strings & horns, respectively). Speedier later piece “Rocks and Daggers” brings more fun with some great old-timey strings, while early number “Shape of My Heart” sees the horns stand out.
Unfortunately, “Shape” also exhibits Noah & The Whale’s greatest weakness: Charlie Fink’s voice. Not flowing enough to be lovely, not deep enough to be profound, not different enough to be ‘remarkable’, his vocals often inhabit this queasy middle ground that can get annoying and preening, like with “Shape”. “Second Lover” has a good straight-faced wry (reminiscent of The Silver Jews’ David Berman – QRO album review), but Charlie Fink’s voice brings it down, and it similarly doesn’t add anything to the alt-country grab bag of styles, “Death By Numbers”.
In general, Peaceful is stronger when it’s faster, and doesn’t let Charlie Fink’s voice dominate. Between “Lover” and “Numbers” is the upbeat, catchy, Hawaiian-style “5 Years Time” – which also benefits from being a male-female duet. While the title track is a return to the slower, weaker form (and, at over six minutes, is just too long), there’s a stronger sustain (and, again, male-female duet) on the following “Mary” – but that also drags in its verse.
Thankfully, finisher “Hold My Hand As I’m Lowered” is maybe the best slow piece, with an emotional heft and grandness that makes its place on the track list fitting. Probably not worth all the early hype (but what is?…), Noah & The Whale still need to work some things out, judging by Peaceful, the World Lays Me Down. However, they also have a lot going for them, and when the right pieces are in place, it’s magic.
MP3 Stream: “Rocks and Daggers”