The Sea of Twang

Or, the Whale navigates the Bay Area's country-teeming waters.

Even though Or, the Whale recently won a music award for best new alt-country band, the fledgling San Francisco group seems far more proud about being included on the Onion‘s prestigious list of the worst band names of 2007.

“Bad publicity is still good publicity,” says frontman Alex Robins, explaining that the somewhat cryptic moniker, derived from the second half of the original title of Moby Dick (as in Moby Dick: or, The Whale) generates much welcomed attention for the young group. “It’s great. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to explain it to people.”

While most of the seven-piece group, who play the Starry Plough on February 9, admit to having never made it through the weighty Melville epic (although the drummer says he once read the pop-up version as a kid), they say the novel’s universal themes of struggle, passion, and navigating restless waters aptly pertain to their hard-driving, country-tinged tunes. A number of the tracks on their self-produced debut album, Light Poles and Pines, succeed in creating that rough-around-the-edges timeless quality of simple folk anthems, conjuring images of tattooed, toothless sailors hollering sea shanties at the top of their lungs on the mast line. And while the material may be a far cry from anything the band can claim as its own personal history, the sound convincingly evokes the intended sensibility.

“I have lots of nautical tattoos, but honestly, I’m fucking scared of the ocean,” admits Robins, 25, who’s written the majority of the group’s lyrics and plays acoustic guitar along with the occasional banjo. “But there’s something so beautiful about really simple songs. They’re universal and people can latch onto them. They have a group mentality.” He gets a particular kick when fans overly analyze the songs. “My girlfriend recently asked me if my songs are about heroin,” Robins adds with a boyish grin. “We love the extra edginess, ’cause we’re not very edgy.”

The thirteen tracks on Light Poles and Pines embrace this simplicity; filled with basic, unsubtle rhythms and standard chord progressions, they’re not a showcase of musical virtuosity or delicate arrangements, yet most are solid compositions, carried by a consistent high energy and enthusiasm of a band that clearly enjoys playing together. Almost everyone pitches in their voices throughout the album, bolstering the steady and accentuated harmonies formed by Robins’ characteristic drone and the rich, more refined accompaniment of Lindsay Garfield and Julie Ann Thomasson, both of whom are trained choral singers.

From “Gonna Have To,” a twangy, straightforward country hootenanny, to the more standard indie-rock vibe of “Fight Song,” Or, the Whale produces an unpretentious blast of sound. Heavily influenced by alt-country gurus like Uncle Tupelo, the music grips firmly onto urban tenors and country roots, adding the band to the fast-growing ranks of cowboy-boot stomping city rockers who keep their banjos and Fenders side by side. Even during the band’s brief hard rock outbursts, the vacillating melody of the pedal steel guitar — alt-country’s patron saint — is featured prominently.

Or, the Whale attributes the urban rise of banjo-toting groups like Devil Makes Three, who bridge punk-rock backgrounds with Southern-infused roots music, to local audiences eager for new sounds that they can rock out to but that can also transport them from concrete streets to simpler, greener places. “It’s a different sound for this city,” says drummer Jesse Hunt. “It’s back to basics.”

The band, whose members hail from scattered urban and suburban areas around the country, acknowledge the peculiar notion of city kids borrowing the music of a culture they’re largely unfamiliar with. But that’s never stopped scores of bands — the Rolling Stones included — who have long been driven to incorporate Southern sounds in their music. Or, the Whale bassist Justin Fantl points to legendary songwriter Gram Parsons, who’s often credited for country music’s urban appeal. “He was just a rich kid from Florida,” says Fantl, adding that Parsons transformed the music into his own unique creation.

The group formed in 2005 when Robins and lead guitarist Matt Sartain posted a Craigslist ad with the subject line: “Want to form a sweet country band?” It worked, attracting a musical divers group of applicants, like Garfield, who had choral music training but had never been in a band before. Two years later, they haven’t had that fabled breakthrough that most musicians who want to quit their day jobs fantasize of — they say their first cross-country tour this summer yielded moments of glory, but was also marked by feelings of anonymity and exhaustion. Still, they seem satisfied with their local following and are preparing to record their second album later this year. They say the band’s appeal lies very much in the collaborative nature with which it creates and performs music. “It’s getting to the point where certain songs don’t sound good by themselves,” notes Sartain.

Or, the Whale still has that fresh, new-band smell going for it, the quality that’s provided a small but committed fanbase and allowed it to craft a unique niche in a growing sea of young twanging bands. It’s kept them from feeling jaded by San Francisco’s often foreboding hipster indie scene. The band’s greenness does come with some snares. While their unrefined sound is generally refreshing, there is certainly much that can be improved, as is evident on a few songs like “Crack a Smile,” which lacks momentum and comes off a bit tedious and generic. Yet, the minor weaknesses ultimately add to the naive, work-in-progress notion that accounts for some of the band’s attraction.

“Our crowd sees that we’re green and they all act green too,” says Robins. “That’s given us good momentum in town. We haven’t felt like we have to be in direct competition. We’re not trying to sound like everyone else.”

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