On “Not Going Back to the Harbour,” the final song on Lanterns on the Lake’s debut album, singer Hazel Wilde portrays a woman left waiting out on the docks. Though the song is a stripped-down guitar-vocal demo, the bare folk melody and lyric say a lot about the ten songs that have come before them on Gracious Tide, Take Me Home.
First, this is a story written by a Newcastle, England, band that reflects their little dot on the map of the world. The album is full of images of ships at sea, or people lost at sea, or people waiting for people to come back from sea. Not surprisingly, the band’s first video for “Keep on Trying” dives headfirst into local politics, with seaside imagery and scenes from Newcastle daily life. “Ships in the Rain,” which seems like a sort of obvious lover-lost-at-sea story (“sailor will never come home”) turns out to have been inspired by a local boy who went missing. So, as it were, these sons and daughters of the once-great port town of Newcastle upon Tyne seem to come by their nautical imagery honestly.
The second thing that “Not Going Back to the Harbour” hints at is what all the songs on Gracious Tide might sound like if Wilde and her bandmates were not so fascinated by electronic textures and lofty chamber-pop arrangements. "Harbour” is just a one-minute vignette recorded into a laptop microphone, and therefore lacks the elaborate dressing that the other songs are weighted down by.
The album opens with a clicking sound so glitchy and unexpected that you will be checking your speaker and headphone connections to make sure everything is still in order. The song is “Lungs Quicken,” and Wilde sings strangely, “Lungs please breathe for me/ Heart please beat for me.” As the band builds up the song around her, the little glitch that it started with is buried underneath loads of texture from percussion, strings, piano, and more voices.
It’s just that, after a while, I’ve started to find that these small rhythms of daily life - the clicking of a chair, or rustling of paper, or whatever undecipherable ambient bit of noise it happens to be – are infinitely more interesting than the atmospheric guitars and violin, and Wilde’s cloying vocals, that come to dominate the arrangements.
Regardless, Lanterns on the Lake have crafted a weird and spacious world on their first LP, where every sound has been obsessed over. It’s deeply dreamy pop, not unlike Beach House (with whom Lanterns share a UK label in Bella Union) or Mazzy Star, though their songwriting isn’t quite up to snuff with either of those.
On “You’re Almost There,” which starts with simple piano chords and a small bit-crushed rhythm, Lanterns on the Lake achieve something that they miss on other songs. The song’s elements – a damn-near funky drum and percussion motif; dynamic interplay between violin and guitar stabs – don’t get lost in that huge-soaring-anthemic thing, thank you very much. While other songs seem to hide in plain sight behind the group’s impressive production skills, on “You’re Almost There,” that awkward mix of rickety and shiny has been let go of and the ship seems finally on balance.