For all of its can-do, optimistic leanings, America has always had an uncanny knack for producing dark, doom-laden music. From folk’s murder ballads to the dirtiest Delta blues and even to claustrophobic gangsta rap, the best of this nation’s sounds are often the most macabre. Alex Church, the fertile songwriting mind behind Sea Wolf (rather tellingly, the moniker was culled from the title a Jack London novel), has a firm grip on the shadowy site of Americana. His project’s debut LP, the Phil Ek-produced Leaves in the River, is a lush, darkly romantic set piece that has arrived just in time for the autumn.
The title track begins the album on a gentle and beguiling note, drawing listeners in with its sing-song melody and Halloween fairy-tale setting. It’s an enchanting number, but it serves as a gateway to the juicy core of the album. Opening with a Waitsian accordion flourish, “Winter Windows” thrives on its theatrical sense of setting and characterization, thrusting us into a dark little room in the forest from its opening lines. “Black Dirt,” meanwhile, stands as the record’s finest accomplishment, beginning all overcast and acoustic before the storm clouds burst and the band truly bares its teeth. “Black dirt will stain your feet/ and when you walk you’ll leave black dirt in the street,” sings Church in what sounds like half a threat and half a warning. Band anthem “You’re a Wolf” also works this style of muted aggression to stunning effect, with its insistent guitar jangle and menacing cello line working in tandem. More than just songs with “haunting melodies,” these tunes create and sustain the foreboding atmosphere that gives the album its dark character. And having Ek behind the boards always helps in this regard.
If there’s a complaint to be made, it’s that Church hasn’t yet grown into a captivating presence in his own right. When the spotlight shines squarely on him alone, as with the nondescript album closer, “Neutral Ground,” the quality suffers. He’s already fulfilled a great deal of promise as a lyricist and arranger, but Church is a bit too detached and laconic a singer to really demand attention. With all of that taken into consideration, however, Leaves in the River makes for an engaging all-around listen. If you can stomach one more “wolf” group on your iPod, this is the one to pick.