At 35,000 feet, a first real listen of Freelance Whales’ debut LP seems scarily appropriate. The tops of clouds and glimpses of the coastline below act as visual echoes of Judah Dadone’s gentle vocal style, of the intricate orchestration and laptop rhythms the multi-instrumental quintet has to offer throughout Weathervanes. Prevailing winds even affect an airplane as much as they power the device after which Freelance Whales named the album. Sensually, the only reason the experience of the record doesn’t fit the journey of an hour-and-a-half flight is that, for someone afraid of flying like I am, Weathervanes lacks the adrenaline edge felt at takeoff and landing. It’s beautiful but a little impotent, kinetic but decidedly de-clawed.
I could and do forgive the record for its overall sonic gentleness. I might prefer music with a bit more testosterone, but that’s not Freelance Whales’ fault. But what I can’t seem to forgive is the preciousness and outright silliness of some of the lyrics, especially when they’re sheathed in an electronic soundscape so reminiscent of The Postal Service at times that it seems to scream it from the very rooftops discussed in their song “Hannah.” I understand that some lines in this track are intended to be tongue-in-cheek — “Do me this solid if you would, pretty lady” — but the banality of other moments like “And if you’re partial to the night sky” or “Hannah takes the stairs ‘cause she can tell that it’s a winding spiral case” mixed with the deliberate frivolity of “Every now and then, she offers me a lemon/ Now and later” or “Please don’t be a player hater” just can’t be overlooked.
Conversely, then, it’s the grounded, bottom-heavy songs like “Location” and “Broken Horse” — ones with an aesthetic more dependent on banjo than electronics, ones that originate more from the abdomen and less from a clever head — that really fly. “What a flammable heart I’ve been given,” Dadone intones with naked honesty at the outset of “Location.” Through all the bells and distant whining and sweet, almost creepy vocal harmonies, somehow Dadone’s lyric about “your black and orange barrettes” just isn’t as annoying as the equally minute character descriptions found in the album’s other tracks.
So let me admit right now that I would have loved this record when I was a teenager. It’s soaring, nonthreatening, and espouses undeniable and intimately observed truths. Certain tracks, even heard with a more jaded ear, still prove inarguably successful. “Starring” and “Ghosting,” for instance, possess a transcendence of which only the most blissful pop can boast. In particular, “Starring” compellingly mixes telescopic vocal harmonies with skillful banjo and (yes, extremely derivative) electronica of the kind my 19-year-old self would have adored. And “Ghosting,” with its (for once) enigmatic lines like “You caught me sleeping in the power sockets/ You caught me mildewing the dials in the bathroom” possess a quiet intensity as it discusses painful nostalgia, an aching that you can feel in the choral voices and acoustic guitar.
If the adrenaline is missing from Weathervanes, then, maybe it’s because Freelance Whales aren’t afraid of a little turbulence. “We compare our hearts to things that fly and cannot land,” Dadone sings during “We Could Be Friends.” Though it’ll never be powerful or earthshaking, Weathervanes seems to have found its place among the clouds.