Before Portishead ever released a record, key members
Geoff Barrow and Beth Gibbons
made a short film called To Kill A Dead Man, for which
they also recorded the soundtrack. This film ultimately got
the attention of some record execs and, before long, Barrow
and Gibbons were in the studio, recording their Mercury Prize-winning
debut, Dummy. This seemingly strange beginning to a
band’s career is not surprising, given the cinematic nature
of Portishead’s music. It wouldn’t be surprising if Richmond,
Virginia’s Denali also had a movie or two up their
sleeves. The music on their Jade Tree debut, stunning in its
rich textures and dramatic dynamics, evokes haunting scenes
of beauty and melancholy. Indeed, Denali is film for
“Cold, remotely desolate, permanent.” These are the characteristics
that Denali the band feels their music has in common with
their namesake mountain (that’s Mount McKinley for those who
don’t speak Athapascan), and I agree completely, though the
“cold” of Denali is far different from the “cold” of, say,
Fifty percent of this quartet (bassist Keeley Davis
and drummer Jonathan Fuller) is moonlighting
from the emotive Engine Down, but given the
strength of this record, it would not be surprising to see
Davis and Fuller turn their full attention to the Denali project.
Fuller’s effects-drenched drums and Davis’s snaky baselines
create grooves on each track that would not be out of place
on a Portishead or Massive Attack record. These
grooves are sometimes dirge-like and sometimes downright rump-shakin’.
Guitarist Cam Dinunzio (also moonlighting from
Lazycain) supplies soaring and searing guitar lines
that chime like a glockenspiel one moment and squeal like
Jimi’s Flame-O-Caster the next. The multiple layers
of sound that make this record the gorgeous sound collage
that it is are given cohesion and, well, sparkle through the
engineering and production work of Sparklehorse’s Mark
Linkous and Sparklehorse collaborator Alan Weatherhead.
The real star here, however, is Davis’s little sister, Maura
Davis, whose fallen angel voice is reminiscent of Ms.
Gibbons’s signature 3 a.m. tone. Davis, a classically trained
vocalist, has chosen to turn her training inside out (“If
my voice teacher heard me today, she’d kill me,” says Davis)
to develop a sound that is so powerful and so stunning in
its breadth that you’ll wonder how you ever lived without
it. In fact, I’ll admit that I found myself hopelessly in
love after my first full listen through Denali. From
the strident, sexy wail of “French Mistake” to the soft, vulnerable
and sexy whisper of “Function”, to the groovy and, by the
way, sexy crooning of “You File”, Davis demonstrates a power
and versatility that is positively intoxicating. But that’s
not all. Davis is no one-trick pony, and she’s certainly no
one’s puppet. All the cadavre exquis words she sings
are her own, and she accompanies herself on electric rhythm
guitar as well.
Denali is that rarest of breeds in today’s music business:
a record on which all tracks are equally strong and equally
indispensable. Seriously, you can drop the needle anywhere
on this platter and here the awesome power and beauty of Denali.
It’s that good. Once you shake the Portishead frame of reference,
you’ll start to notice the true originality of this band.
Denali is likely to find its audience with equal parts
trip-hop fans, Fugazi fans, and Beth Orton fans. Diverse and
eclectic, it hangs together as a whole thanks to an overarching
musical and lyrical theme of loneliness, melancholy, and cynicism.
However, Denali are no self-pitying sadsacks. The sadness
of Denali is full of power, passion, and hope. It’s
the same sadness that makes people join the Peace Corps, become
public servants, watch Bergman films or adopt children.
It’s an ambitious sadness that turns aural phenomena into
stark and stunning mental movies, in which the heroine triumphs
against ugliness and wins the final victory for beauty and
truth. Denali is sadness that makes the world a better
1. French Mistake
2. You File
3. Lose Me
4. Everybody Knows
7. Time Away
10. Where I Landed
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