It’s been four long years since the last Shipping News record proper — the brilliant Very Soon and in Pleasant Company — but from the first notes of Flies the Fields, it’s apparent Louisville’s flagship post-rock group is in no rush to revisit the graves of old, dusty ghosts. The record begins not with the tightly wound, barbed-wire guitar/bass/drum assault to which listeners were first introduced on 1997’s Save Everything or the rapturous, hushed elegies that punctuated 2001’s Very Soon. It instead begins with the gently fluttering heartbeat of Kyle Crabtree’s kick drum and a rumbling bass-pulse to match, a bridge that slowly and carefully expands with the help of spare guitar chords. Only half of the way into “Axons and Dendrites” do the proceedings begin to really boil and then only in anticipated degrees. The track’s an album-opener that owes more to Ursa Major-era Eleventh Dream Day than to the dynamic and emotive post-rock/post-punk of RMSN’s pseudo-predecessor, Rodan, and it’s a clear indication of the band’s approach to its latest eight-song outing. Flies the Fields can be an engaging and beautiful record but it’s one that also seems to stand outside the chronology one would draft or expect from Shipping News.
This isn’t to say the record is without moments that will remind longtime fans of why they fell in love with the group in the first place. The instrumental “Louven,” all swaying guitars and pacing bass-lines, weaves together the somber reflections of both “A True Lover’s Knot” and Rodan’s “Bible Silver Corner” into something that remains both fresh and familiar. Jason Noble’s fragile narration and singing on “It’s Not too Late” echoes his effecting delivery on Very Soon’s “Actual Blood.” The found sounds and guitar asides in the background of “Paper Lanterns (Zero Return)” — a stand-out from 2003’s experiment/LP Three/Four — would be right at home on Save Everything. The record’s greatest moments, though, are ones that seem to exist slightly outside the context presented by the group’s recent outings.
“(Morays or) Demon,” the record’s third track, begins with a crunching, palm-muted guitar line straight out of The Jesus Lizard’s “I Can Learn” and cracks up the tension level to the point where the resulting explosions are not just releases but foregone conclusions. In the track’s closing minute, after the interwoven guitar and bass lines give way to a refrain of choppy power-chords, Noble repeatedly barks “Knocked down! Knocked down! Knocked down!” with a venom that he hasn’t show since his Rodan days. In the sludgy but strangely inviting dirge “Untitled w/ Drums,” it’s Crabtree who steals the show, strumming a loose and distorted electric guitar as he softly duets with Pit Er Pat’s Fay Davis Jeffers.
The proceedings, though, are not without occasionally lesser moments and that’s something that fans of Save Everything and Very Soon may be surprised to hear. For the first time, the group is appearing as a quartet and not a trio, having added The For Carnation alum/Slint touring bassist Todd Cook and shifted Noble to guitar to complement Jeff Mueller. The result is surprising, at times, for what it doesn’t seem to bring to the equation. While Mueller and Noble seemed to work the dual-guitar approach to maximum effect with Rodan, on Flies the Fields it seems they aren’t doing much together they haven’t proven they can do on their own. On tracks like “Louven,” the two-guitar approach adds a warmth and dimension that keeps the song’s verses constantly flowing and developing, but that’s something that Mueller nailed with the use of digital delay on Very Soon. And, while Cook’s delivery seemed the perfect balance to Brian McMahan on records like The For Carnation, it doesn’t do as much here. Above and beyond the startling chemistry exhibited between Crabtree, Mueller, and Noble on past records, Noble’s bass simply has a quality in the Shipping News formula that Cook lacks — a kind of sensuousness and sense of rhythm that he might have inherited from his occasionally referenced interests in Prince and 80s hip-hop. (Insert King G and The J Crew reference here.)
Then there’s Crabtree. The former Eleven Eleven anchor is arguably of the most inventive and hard-hitting indie-rock drummers out there — if you need further evidence, see him live — but he just doesn’t seem entirely involved in Flies the Fields. It’s only on “The Human Face,” the only track where Noble appears on bass and Cook shifts to second-guitar, that Crabtree and much of the rest of the band seem to muster the spark of their former selves. Though it starts with a casual, borderline pensive intro, the track is a vicious barn-burner whose core revolves a pummeling rhythm section, Mueller’s song-speak narration, grimy guitars, and stop-start refrains. (Shellac bassist, engineer extraordinaire, and Rusty namesake Bob Weston also contributes some backing vocals, according to the liner notes.)
Maybe it’s heightened expectations from Very Soon or a sense of anticipation exaggerated by the length of time between full-length records, and maybe it’s just that Flies the Fields is in the unfortunate position of following a couple records that could serve as the high-water mark for no small number of acts. It’s tough to say, really, and even tougher to pick apart a record by a group of musicians who so consistently deliver and rise above the bar. The record, all in all, is a great one, with a few songs that stand among Shipping News’ strongest, but ultimately, for some, it may feel like a victim of the band’s own brilliance and past luminousness. Let’s be honest, though — even a good record from RMSN could knock over the most sterling offering from lesser bands and, with Flies the Fields, Shipping News does continue to prove it’s a demon that cannot be knocked down. – Delusions of Adequacy, April 26, 2005