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Thee More Shallows - A History of Sport Fishing - (Monotreme)

15 April 2007

San Francisco’s Thee More Shallows may soon cut a much higher profile as the group is on a worldwide tour to promote the April 24th release of its third full-length album—Book of Bad Breaks (Anticon).

However, the recently re-released 2002 debut, A History of Sport Fishing, offers a timely introduction ahead of the upcoming record.

I had long considered the group’s excellent sophomore effort, More Deep Cuts, to be its best. Sport Fishing struck me as more diffuse, tentative and linear. It also ran almost an hour while Deep Cuts was more defined and digestible at about 40 minutes. However, in anticipation of hearing the new record and seeing the group next month, I decided to revisit Sport Fishing and have since fallen under its blissful spell.

Why music this good, pure and heartfelt doesn’t get a wider audience is hard to comprehend. Then again, it did take some time for even a genuine fan such as myself to fully appreciate it. The trick with this album is to be patient. It may not immediately grab you but stay with it and its rewards should unfurl with time.

The group conjures up Grandaddy, Yo La Tengo, Radiohead Sparklehorse, Love and Catherine Wheel (especially the pastoral stretches of Adam and Eve), but has an orchestral bent that includes piano, cello and French horn. On the gorgeous “Aerodrome” you hear twinkling chimes, ear tickling keyboards and what sounds like pizzicato on violin. Throughout, Dee Kesler (singer and guitarist) and multi-instrumentalists Chavo Fraser and Jason Gonzales offer finger-plucked guitars and layers of sound that slowly rise, ebb and re-emerge.

Kesler’s whispered/spoken words are perfectly calibrated to complement the hauntingly beautiful and melodic music, which is precise yet still feels organic and not at all fussed over. But fussed over it is! Kesler, the group’s songsmith, reportedly spent three years in the studio twiddling knobs to perfect Deep Cuts.

Thankfully, Kesler’s obsessiveness and hyper-articulated vision also inform Sport Fishing where some songs, like “The 8th Ring of Hell,” start with whimpers then build to emotional peaks devoid of flashy pyrotechnics. On “8th Ring,” a quickening drum beat intersects with increased urgency in Kesler’s never intrusive voice and that emphasis, though objectively slight, is made powerful by the two plus minute set-up that has the listener’s ears tilting toward a different aural plane.

And not once on this record did I wince at a misplaced note or lyric. The band, in short, uses tone, mood, texture, restraint and space as weapons to bludgeon your well-marinated ears into a state of willful submission where hope, beauty and dread all harmoniously co-exist, just as they seamlessly do on Love’s masterwork Forever Changes.

The band takes chances too. On “The CruXXX,” you can hear, mixed in the song, the muffled and hazy sounds of a slightly raucous party punctuated by bursts of laughter and unfettered glee. However, this party sounds downright sinister. A palpable sense of dissonance suggests that everything is definitely not all right. Despite that, the oh so pretty music serves as a sweet counterpoint to the sour party.

“The Horizon is a Single Point” is a shimmering six and a half minute finale, and perhaps the album’s high point, that’s reminiscent of the majestic “Alley Park” by Springhouse, whose drummer is none other than Jack Rabid, The BigTakeover’s founder, publisher and editor.

An interesting side note is that animals appear on the artwork of every Thee More Shallows album: one rabbit, two frogs, one monkey, one shark and an eagle (Stephen Colbert would be proud) on the new record. The covers, all beautifully done, are interestingly devoid of human representation. The music, however, is human to the core.

Thee More Shallows’ MySpace page