It’s fair to say that Freelance Whales fall under the category of “buzz band,” simply due to their sheer determination to perform in as many New York City venues and street corners as possible, all the while amassing a decent collection of atypical instruments to play with. After gaining a following in New York City (which in retrospect doesn’t seem impossible if you play at all of the right blogger-based watering holes), Freelance Whales assembled a collection of their best indie-pop tunes, hopped on FrenchKiss Records, and prepared to release Weathervanes. But there are plenty of things comparable to being a buzz band -- like, say, being embroiled in a tabloid scandal, or popping out eight kids then getting your face bloated with collagen. Along with instant fame, the Internet can also be a dangerous place. The media world is just as celebratory as it is desperately unforgiving. Can Freelance Whales outlast the buzz when so many bands can’t?
Weathervanes is a shining example of why Freelance Whales were appealing as a street act. Throw enough strange instruments in and you’ll have faces gawking all over the subway platform. Weathervanes opens sweetly with “Generator ^ First Floor,” with ample harmonies, banjo strums and tambourines, accordion and feeling. The record continues with a slew of syrupy tracks (one that includes a potential reference to mumblecore film queen Greta Gerwig in Hannah Takes the Stairs), which for the most part get their point across. Anyone with a taste for college radio/CMJ/indie rock top-20 lists will likely wet their pants over Weathervanes’ authenticity and just-intricate-enough Care Bear songs. All of Judah Dadone’s heartfelt lyrics fit easily like puzzle pieces into the band’s bittersweet folk-pop arrangements, and the tracks are certainly catchy.
However, there are points where Weathervanes goes too far. “Broken Horse” sounds so unbelievably like a page out of Sufjan Stevens’ songbook that, just for a minute, it’s easy to grow intractably annoyed with Weathervanes. In fact, after too many listens to the record, it’s easy to feel slightly ill, like you’ve eaten a bite too many of grocery-store-bought birthday cake.
And while Weathervanes is a cute enough record, I question its ability to stay relevant. Freelance Whales are in a compromising position. In 2008, their labelmates the Dodos rocked the New York City venue scene after the release of their second album, Visiter, while blogs sang their praises. It was a happy time. But when their third album, Time To Die, came out, their buzz fell flat. The record felt overinflated and a tad overworked. The blogs fell silent. It’s a tale as old as time, but it occurs a great deal more now that indie fame is so much more attainable -- and ephemeral. What Internet buzz bands have the most to worry about, then, is not their first album, but their subsequent offerings. Weathervanes is a darling, coherent, and certainly radio-friendly (if at times sugary) record. But on their next attempt, Freelance Whales should tone down the maudlin, veer away from Sufjan territory, subtract a few bells and whistles and grow up with the college crowd.
When an indie band employs banjo, xylophone, harmonium and glockenspiel, one expects its recording process to be just as eccentric; DIY studios on abandoned burial grounds or creaky, ambient old houses come to mind. But for Freelance Whales, that supernatural power doesn’t come from a contrived location, but instead grows out of a gothic love story. Concept album Weathervane, the band’s debut release, explores a boy’s romantic fantasies about the ghostly woman who haunts his family home. Years of rehearsing in unusual places—city streets, subway platforms, and geriatric wards—have enabled Freelance Whales to transfer their vagabond minstrelsy to record, heightening the dreamy, atmospheric quality of Weathervane’s songs without relying on an exotic location.