Raven and the White Night

(Jagjaguwar; 2007)

By Joel Elliott | 26 January 2008

I don't usually put stock in artists' official descriptions of their own work (particularly something this outlandish), but for Odawas, the band's website suggests a good way to approach their music: "like watching an avalanche crushing a Bavarian cottage or a man being attacked by a lion, listening to Odawas while being nestled safely in your phono-womb is an exercise in tuning into sublime frequencies from safe carriage." It sounds a little voyeuristic, and you might expect something like the abject experience of ingesting (or choking on) a Xiu Xiu record, but the real reason this statement strikes me as accurate is that Odawas' music is both comforting (particularly the soft acoustic strums and delicate Neil Young-inspired croon of vocalist Michael Tapscott) and strangely disquieting; like being stranded in a thick-walled cabin while a violent storm rages outside. This is gloomy, dirge-y folk, using reverbed acoustic guitars less for simplicity than for their haunting sense of space, much like the ghosts of fallen soldiers that haunted '60s acid-folk group Pearls Before Swine. But the best thing I can say about Odawas is that most of the time they aren't trying to be scary; Tapscott's voice is humble and nervous, and while it still all seems very theatrical, it's eloquent at the very least.

As for the word "sublime," I would reserve it for one track from Raven and the White Night: the beautiful "Alleluia," whose refrain features some of the best use of whistling I've ever heard. The moment at which the whistling kicks in after a moment of silence is when the whole meek, paranoid nature of the record (and even the rest of the song itself) suddenly vanishes: it's not just whistling in the dark; it's whistling to kill the dark. Then it cuts out and Tapscott's voice slowly enunciates the four syllables of the title. They are less a hymn of praise than a delicate bargaining plea with God.

While the band uses electronic manipulations to ends that are often interesting, the quality of the album seems to rest more on an overall mood which is stark, melancholy, and chilling all at once. However, it's also heavy enough to preclude any chance that the individual elements can be appreciated in and of themselves. This is kind of a shame; even from the get-go, opening sound collage "The Maddening of Raven" suggests a wilful embrace of abstraction that would be more appreciable if the whole thing didn't lumber so apocalyptically. Disembodied voices, erratic low-end piano, muted trumpets; all would be great, but then there's that string orchestra and church organ and thundering tympani hailing la fin de monde. It might be more interesting if the whole album went full throttle, but then some delicate guitar plucking opens "When God Was a Wicked Kid," a listless track of tender harmonies and morose lyrics ("I am the one / The lecherous whore"). On my first listen to Raven and the White Night, not knowing what to expect, this sudden turn to quieter terrain surprised me, but after a few listens it makes the first track seem like a false start. The same can be said of the other misguided cinematic exploration, "Love Is...(The Only Weapon with Which I Got to Fight)," its title forming a speech which is railed against by a Malcolm X-type militant who starts listing all the actual weapons he has to fight. It's difficult to estimate what the band was trying to say in including it here, but the tinkling xylophones and overstated strings which back it up seem to want to accelerate its dramatic potential rather than necessarily doing so.

Too bad really, because the album doesn't need it, and its actual songs -- despite some occasionally overreaching lyrics -- work really well. "Circus Song" is perfectly evocative with its purple organ and creepy imagery which reminds me of Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. "The Ice" opens with some cutting harmonica like the wind blowing across the barren prairies, and features some of the band's better lyrics: "I believe in the ice / As preserver of my life." These tracks are supplemented with some haunting effects which, while not quite on the level of Califone's cut n' paste Americana, still manage to sound entirely in line with the skeletal acoustic arrangements. It's this simultaneous presence of the familiar and the alien -- or the warm cabin vs. the harsh world outside, if you will -- that represents the band's real strength here.