Smile Politely

Album Review: Tall Tale, Pirate Ship

In the pleasantly muddled world of indie music, there are a handful of not-so-descriptive terms that are often branded onto select acts. “Piano rock” is one that gets thrown around a lot, as well as “jangly guitar pop.” Of course there’s also “dance indie,” a la the Happy Mondays. These labels, however, do not come across as a positive portrayal, but rather as an indication of the one-dimensionality that pervades pop music.

Enter Tall Tale, a young Champaign-based band whose debut full-length album Pirate Ship was released last month. With female vocals and piano based verses, listeners will make obvious connections to already established acts such as The Hush Sound and Eisley, but Tall Tale offers a little more innovation and versatility than their more radio friendly contemporaries. Pirate Ship, consequently, is a very impressive first album that is often surreal and surprising.

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The album opener and title track serves up a taste of the finger snapping melodies that are characteristic of the band’s overall sound. Singer/keyboardist Tracey Morrison croons a serene opening before the song transitions into a dreamlike ensemble of guitar chops and piano accompaniment. The instrumental harmonies brilliantly succeed in representing the Neverland landscape that the lyrics describe.

If Pirate Ship, continued at this pace, the resulting album would be decent, and Tall Tale would have written a bunch of indie rock songs that were at least worth a listen. This, however, is not the case. While “Pirate Ship” does possess a distinct indie quality that can be heard throughout the title track and several other songs, the album presents a much greater range of sound, and Tall Tale prove themselves capable of channeling a variety of influences into their music.

“Tree Song,” for example, is a stripped down folk song that comes as a very appropriate digression from the band’s usual mood. With an all acoustic intro and poignant, expressive vocals, the song is an excellent inclusion on the album. Similarly, closer “Truke” is a very low key, folksy tune that allows Tall Tale to demonstrate their abilities in arenas outside of indie rock. “Your Hat” is a much more ambient composition that features unearthly guitar drones and an overall eerie mood.

Another aspect of Pirate Ship that will help Tall Tale stand out as a promising young band is the instrumental innovation and varied songwriting styles. A label like “piano rock” is oppressive to a band with such an assortment of influences, and while piano is a main component to many of the songs on this album, the other instruments are by no means superfluous. Some songs are driven by a guitar riff, or even a drum beat, and the equal contributions from each member of the band creates a musical cohesion that may be defining feature and crowning achievement of Pirate Ship.

Tall Tale has roots in indie rock, but to assign an overly specific genre to such a promising young band would be an offense. Pirate Ship is a great debut from a band with a lot of potential, so let’s hope Tall Tale continues to avoid indie convention at all costs.

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