By Jack Spencer
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By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
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Its first note booms mutely like distant thunder. A guitar and, more lightly, a keyboard loom over rolling drums like blinks of heat lightning, and from these first strokes, Whitesand/Badlands' double vinyl release wears its stormy outlook on an imperiled, corrupt, and beautiful world like a widow's weeds.
But call Seeding the Clouds a dark album, and you damn it with broad praise.
"In a sense, it's a dark album," says Andy Larson, guitarist and founding member of Whitesand/Badlands. "I'm a sucker for minor keys. But there're songs about when I was traveling. How every city would take you in. Give you keys. Put you up on a couch. Amazing generosity. To some extent the record is about that dichotomy. A hope for goodness about people, and a vague dread about what they're doing to others, and what technology is doing to us."
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It's not hard to get an immediate sense of how vast an undertaking Seeding the Clouds has been for Whitesand/Badlands. The material for the double LP has been in the works since the band's 2007 inception. It has weathered numerous lineup changes and the resulting ordeals of engineering the elegant compositions for mutating live set-ups; it's been a labor of vision so elemental for Whitesand/Badlands that Larson financed the project out-of-pocket to make sure it saw the light of day, and in the carefully realized manner they wanted.
"It's an effort to swim upstream against an ephemeral quality in the music world," says Larson. "Putting out your own record and taking the time to do it well gives you a lot more control over it than dealing with a large industry, even if the industry has more money and power. I'd have 250 copies of it in the hands of people who like the art and like that we took that extra step, like having it, rather than 1,000 copies in broken jewel cases. It's the difference between photocopied art and being able to hold a jacket in your hands."
For a single song to survive such years is triumph enough. But the 10-song release hasn't just survived—it seems to have been imparted, through the hardships of lengthy arrangement and assembly, a heroic maturity. Seeding the Clouds is an album that has been wised, not hardened, by age, its pieces supple and tenderized as if from a years-long hailstorm. Whitesand/Badlands know its inroads and outlets like a star map, but these songs are vastness in four-minute cuts, so deceptively complex that no one, not even Whitesand/Badlands, could fully tame them. These are properties that Larson meekly attributes to good fortune and diligent collaborators who are loath to let sentiment hamstring the product.
"We always start with an idea," says Larson, "and refine it by asking ourselves not 'what should the guitar do?' but 'what does the song want?' Sometimes, practicing is like walking around with a divining rod. Sure, you hit dead ends. But we try to give the compositions room to breathe as we mess around with it. If the song seems to want something shorter even though you like the part, you make it shorter."
The fruits are audible. Whitesand/Badlands are a band blessed with an open ear and a steady hand, even as they face down the great chimeras of a troubled modern age and drink deeply from pitch-black waters. Songs like album opener "Angels on the Pinhead" confront the compaction of the nightly news into sound bites and Twitter feeds, which leaves an entire culture bereft of nuance. The compositions brood and burn, even as they ascend into the major key. And the entire album works tirelessly to paint a lit-by-lightning portrait of a world in grave peril that maybe, just maybe, is worth saving.
But Seeding the Clouds is a portrait of darkness visible, composed of symphonies in miniature that stick to the ribs but never overbear, that illuminate but never blind. The care that forbade the band from severing a single song to crunch the album onto one vinyl disc stares out at the world from a beautifully decorated sleeve, rings out from every groove. By the time "Whale Song," the album's finisher, rings out, Whitesand/Badlands have laid a gentle hand on every discordant, reverberating whim in their playbook, tempering their wildness into works as organically complex as thunderclouds. It's a dim and beautiful record, forged, from the first note to the last jacket fold, with a whaler's sweat and blood.
"Believe me, a single vinyl release would have saved a whole lot of expense," says Larson of the finished project. "I mean, it's another two sides of plating and mastering. But we put a lot of work into it. We saw it through every step of the way. We didn't want to settle on throwing it onto CDRs. It takes extra time, but it's worth it in the end to have the right presentation for it."
WHITESAND/BADLANDS play with Haunted House (CD-release show), Clip'd Beaks, and Skoal Kodiak on SATURDAY, JULY 17, at the TURF CLUB; 651.647.0486