Speck Mountain's Some Sweet Relief could lazily be called a "slow burn." But this record doesn't burn slow so much as it smolders. These songs seethe with a persistent, low heat that feels comforting at first, wrapping around you. But then the temperature flares up in a red-cheeked surge, the songs take on layers of sound like a film of sweat, and it becomes apparent that something is at stake here.
And while exactly what that thing is isn't clear, what is clear is that singer Marie-Claire Balabanian intends to hash it out. Her beautiful voice is strained full with longing, stretched out and dragged down by a religion-sized guilt. On "Backsliding" her vocals go from cooing like an innocent to wailing like a shackled banshee and back again. The title track sees her filling out the spare track with a deep, soulful voice. "Some sweet relief lay ahead," she sings often in the song, and if you don't believe it's coming, you will surely believe she needs it, and bad, the way she pleads.
Behind her versatile and devastating voice, Balabanian and bandmate Karl Briedrick craft beautiful soundscapes that spread wide and deep. From the dusty-road echo of guitars on "Twinlines" to the blissful stacks of tumbling notes running through "I Feel Eternal," the duo prove themselves capable of quite a few different sounds on Some Sweet Relief. While much of their sound could fall under some subset of Americana, and there's more than a passing resemblance to the likes of Crazy Horse, Speck Mountain never feel like their borrowing. They establish a mood with this sound, a melancholy hope stuck between the past regrets they know and future they're searching for. The way the lead guitar clashes with the pulse of rhythm chords on opener "Shame On the Soul" immediately announces the conflicted inner life that will run through the album.
And while much of the tension comes from within, these are songs that go out and live in the world. The insistent build of "Sister Water," with its ripples of guitar and haunting vocals, reaches out to you and draws you in. Horns force themselves upon "I Feel Eternal," refusing to let the duo navel gaze. Because, in the end Balabanian, for all her confessions and pining, isn't looking for absolution. She sounds earnestly helpless to her desires throughout this album. And while she is working toward some kind of fidelity, even if it is only to herself, Some Sweet Relief is as much about giving into desire, about our limited ability to fight it and all its damaging baggage, as it is about grappling with it to get to a better place.
I could sit here all day and write about Balabanian's beautiful voice, or the collection of dreamy songs on Some Sweet Relief. I could keep rambling on about the intricate guitar work and bittersweet atmosphere of the album. I could discuss its subtle moves between pop and country and soul and R&B. But, in the end, it isn't these things, taken together or separately, that make the album great. In the end, the way Some Sweet Relief comes together is inexplicable, in a way. These are the concrete pieces of it, the tags I can use to identify the music's strengths. But there is something else weaving through all of this, that other mysterious thing that some great records have, that keeps you going back even while you know that whatever vocabulary you come up with, whatever modifier you hang on the album, will be inadequate. Just give it a listen, and you'll see what I mean.