Far too often, people assume a band will have a certain sound because they're on a particular record label. I was certainly guilty of this prejudice with Denali. Although I'd never really paid attention to most of the bands on the Jade Tree roster, I assumed they all fit neatly into the indie/emo rock niche -- and as Denali was on Jade Tree, I figured they'd be easy to figure out.
I can admit when I make a mistake -- especially when I'm shown to be wrong to the extent I was with Denali and their self-titled debut. Though the band expertly glides from genre to genre, the music here could never be described as generic indie rock, and the increasingly derogative term that's most often used to describe Jade Tree's output (hint: three letters, begins with "e") does not apply here. Atmospheric trip-hop? That would be the beautifully sinister "Lose Me". Jazz-inspired rock? Most definitely, as "French Mistake" shows, though the song could just as easily be rock-inspired jazz. To be fair, however, there are moments -- most notably "You File" and "Everybody Knows" -- when Denali's output could be neatly summarized as straightforward rock music.
Or at least, that would be the case, if not for lead singer Maura Davis. Davis possesses a voice which defies easy description. Sometimes she sounds like a throwback to Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holiday, if either of those two ladies had fronted a space-rock band. At other times she's more reminiscent of a personality-based act like Björk; her powerful pipes can envelop an entire song and make it sound downright transcendent. And there are a few points on Denali, such as "Prozac", where it seems plausible that Davis is merely Portishead's Beth Gibbons in disguise, and this is the reason for that band's lack of output in recent years.
While Davis's performance draws from a broad and intriguing range of influences, she has the makings of a singer in a class of her own. And rather than allowing Davis's uniqueness to carry them, the other members of Denali clearly favor a similarly eclectic aesthetic, riddling their music with pleasant musical surprises. Far from being the act you'd expect, Denali is a band that must be heard to be believed.