SEA WOLF at the El Mocambo (464 Spadina), Friday (November 9). $10. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
It's always intriguing when an indie act like Sea Wolf appears out of nowhere fully formed, with a fantastic debut album that they somehow get to showcase on a popular TV talk show the day it hits the street.
Maybe Jimmy Kimmel Live! just happened to have an opening spot for a band on September 25. And it was just coincidence that Sea Wolf's new Leaves In The River (Dangerbird) disc was already scheduled to drop the same day they got a desperate call from Uncle Frank, who'd had caught them at Spaceland and knew they'd make a perfect last-minute fill in. That still doesn't explain how the relatively unknown Sea Wolf landed prime up-front features in recent issues of Harp and Interview.
Even Sea Wolf main man Alex Church can't explain it.
"I'm not really sure how we got on Kimmel," says Church on a cellphone. "But we do have some great people behind us at Dangerbird, and there are advantages that come with being on a label with a successful band like Silversun Pickups. The fact that they were on Kimmel and there's a bit of a buzz around us in Los Angeles right now probably helped."
The label connection to Silversun Pickups likely has much more to do with Sea Wolf's sudden notoriety than the fact that Church previously played bass with mediocre indie also-rans Irving, the poor man's Earlimart.
But you shouldn't hold that against him. If anything, Church's transformation from nondescript bassist with generic cut-out bin faves to singer/songwriter of L.A.'s hottest indie export is worthy of a standing ovation or two. Not since Richard Hawley left his guitar-picking post with the Longpigs to embark on a celebrated solo career has a low-key sideman stepped out of a dead-end job into the spotlight with such panache.
"When I started Sea Wolf four years ago, I was recording stuff at my house, and it took me a while to figure out how I wanted the music to sound. Toward the end of 2005, I had 10 songs pretty much done and took them to Seattle and worked with Phil Ek, who mixed the tracks and produced the vocal parts. Then in 2006, I recorded six more songs. So it was a very lengthy process.
"I never intended Sea Wolf to be just my thing. It was always meant to be a group with permanent members in which I was the main songwriter. But once other people got involved, I realized that I wanted more control. I like the way Sea Wolf is right now with a rotating cast of players and me being the only constant."
What makes Sea Wolf's Leaves In The River an obvious standout alongside similar orch-pop works recorded on indie budgets is the attention Church pays to the details, specifically the colourful imagery and the masterfully crafted arrangements.
"I like lyrics that are descriptive, that can put the listener in a particular time and place. Many times I'll come up with a scenario based on a certain event but allow listeners to bring their own interpretation to what's happening."
One of the more interesting contributions to Leaves In The River is the tasteful use of glockenspiel. Since glockenspiel became the new cowbell, artists like Jens Lekman are employing the acoustic twinkle on just about every damn song they record. Church should be commended for showing restraint.
"It's a really useful percussive element that can be used to carry a melody and add a certain sparkle to songs. But it's important not to overuse it. Glockenspiel is the new cowbell? That's great. I'll have to use that. More glockenspiel!"
Licensing songs for use in television programs has become an excellent revenue stream for indie bands, but there is a question of whether having a song used in a cheesy teen soap cheapens an artists' music which Alex Church has been wrestling with.
How do you decide which licensing opportunity to seize and which to pass on?