Album Review: The Family Crest, “Beneath the Brine”

Beneath the Brine

The first track on a record is terribly important. It can’t be so stunning that everything that follows seems like a disappointment in comparison, but it also has to be good enough that it pulls you into the album’s world, whets your appetite and leaves you wanting to spend the next forty-odd minutes with this artist. It’s not universally true, of course, but I’ve generally found that if an opener doesn’t grab me, the rest of the album isn’t likely to do much better.

The first thing we hear on the Family Crest’s Beneath the Brine (2014) is a sawing riff straight out Bach’s Cello Suites, cluing you in to the San Francisco collective’s symphonic aspirations. But things quickly go in a much more cinematic direction, as lush strings and angelic choirs surge up underneath singer Liam McCormick’s Nate Ruess-worthy vocal performance.

It’s a big, breathless introduction; and if the rest of the album does carve out some quiet space to breathe at times, the widescreen maximalism remains constant. Indeed,the Family Crest doesn’t really do “small scale” – it’s kind of hard when, in addition to drums, bass, guitar, and keys, your core ensemble features flute, tenor trombone, violin, and cello, not to speak of the more than 400 musical friends and collaborators who put in appearances on one track or another.

In short, there’s a lot going on here, in terms of scale and of style both, as the collective hops from Dave Brubeck jazz (“The Water’s Fine”) to 1930s swing (“Howl”) to high-stakes orchestral pop (“Love Don’t Go”). Thematically, oceanic imagery and relationship woes dominate the record, with much talk of being pulled under the waves and a preponderance of “I-You” dyads. As the record moves toward its conclusion, though, the mood lightens, so that by the time “Make Me a Boat” rolls around, McCormick can sing:

Make me a boat
And set me afloat
And carry me home
Find me a wave
That’s soft and safe
And made for me

Like most of the lyrics here, it’s painted in broad strokes; but anything more intimate or wordy wouldn’t work against such an expansive musical backdrop. Indeed, perhaps the highest compliment one can pay the Family Crest is that, even with a cast of literally hundreds, they never descend into self-indulgence. It’s big and bold and, yes, bombastic, but it’s hard to imagine these hugely melodic (and melodically huge) songs any other way. If the likes of the Divine Comedy or San Fermin set your heart a-flutter, you’ll find it well worth your time to dive Beneath the Brine for a while.


Listen here. Buy it here.

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