I have this formula for doing well in school that works off the premise that teachers are busy dudes. You take the first sizable assignment, the first chance to really show off, or whatever, and just go balls out with it — use unnecessarily big words, make everything complex, double the page requirement — and you’ll get an A in the class. The teacher will read that first paper, assume that you’re a “smart kid,” and consequently skim every one of your papers from then on, assuming that you work that hard on every one. It’s yet to fail me.
Denali’s first album was the like the musical equivalent of the Great American Novel. You’d think this should get them a free pass, but music reviewers aren’t like that quick-to-assume teacher. We dissect every effort, resist existing reputations, and beat up on everyone every chance we get (it’s because we’re jealous). So when your band’s first record was ridiculously stupidly awesome and we called you saviors before you were even sure of what it was exactly you wanted to do, it’s doubly hard to keep your second record from being called a Sophomore Slump.
Hailing from Richmond, Va., Denali seemed to appear from out of the blue with the release of its self-titled record on Jade Tree in 2002. In reality, the hauntingly wonderful Denali was the product of some savvy indie-rock veterans and a startlingly talented newcomer, Maura Davis. Davis enlisted Jonathon Fuller and her brother Keely, both of Engine Down, and guitarist Cam DiNunzio of Lazy Cain fame to help bring some of her own ideas to fruition. It just so happened that said ideas ruled, and the self-titled album got everyone all giddy — we were all handing out Portishead comparisons like they were Prefix flyers at the Siren Festival.
And now we have The Instinct, Denali’s second offering, once again on Jade Tree. Certainly, this record is not a “failure” by any stretch. The only reason it could be mentioned in the same breath as the word “disappointment” is because of how breathtaking the first album was. Musically, there isn’t even a tangible fall off: Davis’s classically trained voice is present and quite beautiful, and the guys create what might be called a more straight-forward “rock record” in support of it. The Instinct is a fuller album, and, whereas the first album was distinctly Davis’s brainchild, it is more collaborative as well.
For the most part, the album even maintains most of the movement that dominated Denali’s debut: nine tracks on The Instinct are beautiful, dynamic creations in and of themselves, reaching a variety of emotional peaks and valleys through the course of their four-minute life spans. The songs are well thought out compositions; The Instinct is a strikingly deliberate album. This is a “press play and walk away” kind of record. There will be no skipping of songs, no repeating of the hot single, none of it. This is a solid album, from start to finish.
But the fall off is in the mood. The Instinct doesn’t make me want to dress up in a nice jacket and tie then loosen it, take off the jacket, ruffle up my shirt and undo the top button, and drink vodka martinis in an empty bar while staring menacingly at some anonymously gorgeous girl with overdone eyeliner. The first album created that; it transcended the musician/listener boundary and infiltrated your life. Denali was mood-altering, only to be listened to in certain mindsets.
It’s not that The Instinct is less atmospheric. It’s that the fullness of this album, in contrast to the sparseness of the earlier work, leaves something to be desired in the “hauntingly icy” arena. The Instinct is a bigger, very produced work, and overall it creates what is probably a much more accessible record. But it was the isolation of the first album that made it brilliant.
Nonetheless, The Instinct is a wonderful album. Whereas the last one was stunning from first listen onward, this record grows on you slowly, infectiously, like some kind of fucked-up musical tumor. Its “numerical score” went from a 2.0 to a 3.5 in the course of writing this review. It’s hard to give such a fully-realized record a 3.5 and throw around words like “slump,” but when a band has shown the unique ability to jump off an album and change the course of your day, the bar is pretty fucking high.