Will the real Baleen (no not the whale bone, the band) please stand up? Listening to this Charlotte, NC, combo's latest disc is like listening to a half-dozen different bands. There is the IDM-obsessed outfit ("Waiting" and "It Still Takes a Little Effort"), the jangle-soul act ("Unmedicated" and "Muted") and the straight-ahead modern rock band ("Sweetspot" and "Artificial Endurance"), all vying for attention on Soundtrack to a Normal Life
. Then there's the funk band with Middle Eastern influences jamming out on track 15. Who is the real Baleen here?
I suppose the easy answer is that all of these are Baleen. While Soundtrack to a Normal Life is wide-ranging to the point of being unfocused (the classical piano rumination "Moonlight" seems particularly out of left field), the solid performances and songwriting are evidence that the band can back up its fantastical breadth. Still, Baleen is at its best toying with the electronic elements in its palette in songs like the instrumental "Assistance", which pairs an acoustic guitar figure with tinny beats over a bed of soft synth. The album's highlight is "Perfect", an electro-brooder that calls to mind excellent German act The Notwist because of an even more pronounced pairing of electro beats and acoustic guitar. Tinkly xylophone and synths fill out the rest of the song and give the bridge a full sound.
The more straight-ahead rock-oriented material, including the sample-driven "Unpaid Porn Star", fails to really engage; it tends to be over-simplistic. The strummer "Take a Number" fares better by riding a strong melody and quieter vocals. Its chorus -- "We can't be long" -- offers a clever homage to the Beatles' "Blue Jay Way," whether intentional or not. "The Ballad of Ardelis Creed", an odd number featuring clarinet, guitar and tambourine, is a pleasant surprise that elegantly segues into "Muted", a quiet, uptempo song that is the best of the straightforward material on Soundtrack to a Normal Life.
If you're into the experimental jam band scene, Baleen should be on your must-hear (and probably must-see) list. The band's use of electronics is really quite exciting. However, less adventurous (or more focused) music fans will likely be put off by the band's genre-jumping.