Any time Baltimore crops up in conversation these days, thoughts are likely to turn to The Wire, but the gritty cop saga is far from its only artistic attraction. It’s not the biggest of American cities, but for many years Baltimore has harboured an indie rock underground whose tentacles have spread far and wide.
First to make their mark were experimental pop troupe Animal Collective. Then Dan Deacon’s intense and playful compositions began to gain traction elsewhere. Beach House and Future Islands were next to transcend the city’s febrile scene, followed by indie-rock bands Wye Oak and Lower Dens and the now-defunct post-punk outfit Double Dagger. None of these acts are exactly household names, but each of them has made an impact in their own way, all the while collaborating and supporting each other, and advancing the image of Baltimore as a vibrant and creative place in which to make music.
It’s this spirit of co-operation that has produced Peals, an instrumental duo featuring two musicians best known as bassists: Future Islands’ William Cashion and Double Dagger’s Bruce Willen. Their two bands don’t sound much alike, though they do have some common traits – neither uses guitars (voice, synth, drum machine and bass in Future Islands’ case; voice, drums and bass for Double Dagger) and both draw heavily on late 70s, early 80s post-punk and new wave.
Peals could scarcely sound more different from either. Walking Field is a gentle, even tranquil record, with little regard for stiff post-punk rhythms. In fact, there are no drums or bass guitars at all. Where there is percussion, it’s created by tapping a guitar or a microphone, and in ‘Lonestar’ and ‘Blue Elvis’ these home-spun beats ease things along in a languid groove. But for the most part, Cashion and Willen rely on elegantly plucked guitar, with support from keys, drones, feedback and all manner of unidentifiable field recordings.
For a couple of bass players, the array of sounds here is impressive, and all done with real craft. And the guitar playing, while simple, is frequently beautiful. In the spare and pretty vignette ‘Tiptoes In The Parlor’ there is nothing but guitar, but more representative are the opening ‘Floating Leaf’ and the closing ‘Koan 1’, two full-bodied, lengthy tracks which bookend the record in similar but contrasting fashion. Both are led by a stately guitar melody, but while the former is bright and optimistic; the latter is darker, with foreboding noise lapping at the guitar.
Walking Field is not a record that demands attention – it unfolds in rather a languorous fashion, and there are moments when it struggles to muster much of a reaction – but it is arguably most successful is when it accentuates Peals’ sombre side. ‘Koan’ is a prime example, while Kate Barutha’s layered cello playing on ‘Pendelles’ is achingly sorrowful, and ‘Believers’ is a simmering six-minute track whose distorted drones are a welcome antidote to the pastoral melodies elsewhere.
Walking Field is warm, inviting and patient record, and one that will no doubt worm its way into more than a few hearts. It’s also a fascinating departure for a couple of post-punk bass players and another string to add to Baltimore’s rather impressive bow. Chris Jones
Out on May 13 via Thrill Jockey Records | www.pealsmusic.com/