As Denali's exceptional self-titled debut
proved, lead singer Maura Davis is more about jazz inflections than "typical" Jade Tree histrionics, and the group's sound is far more complex than three chords and quiet/loud dynamics. This isn't a soundtrack for adolescent angst; it's mature pop music -- the kind of thing that demands repeated listens. It's not an album you'll listen to when you want to cry about that cute girl/guy who won't talk to you.
Initially, The Instinct doesn't seem like a dramatic departure from standard indie rock fare. On album-opener "Hold Your Breath", Denali offer straightforward female-fronted indie rock. Davis's voice hints at the gymnastics she's capable of, but for the most part, the band seems to refute all the depth they demonstrated on their debut.
Fortunately, within the space of another song it's obvious that The Instinct starts where the group's debut finished, building a sturdier sound on its foundation. "Surface" is a rocking spin on trip-hop -- the kind of stuff Portishead could have made if they'd ever gotten around to making a third album. It is at once propulsive and ethereal; the drums push it forward while the guitars gradually develop into a crashing soundscape in the background.
The guitars vanish almost entirely on "Run Through", and Davis is given free reign to show what she can do. The results are breathtakingly beautiful; from this moment onward, The Instinct is a showcase for an amazing voice and a band that knows how to build around it. Even when Denali doubles back in their indie rock tracks, as they do on the title track, "Surface" and "Run Through" are ample and impressive assertions of their power and uniqueness.
Whatever you do, don't assume that The Instinct is emo; Jade Tree has clearly looked beyond the sound that defined their early years, and you'd be wise to reward their risk-taking with a little extra attention. If you don't, you'll miss out on one of the best albums of 2003.