All for One, One for Rock:
Ravens & Chimes Perfect the Art of Ensemble Rock April Feature 2008 Feature Article by Ben
Photo by Judith Levitt
Multi-talented musical ensembles have been making a comeback in recent years, with everyone from Sufjan Stevens to Arcade Fire adding an army of players to their sound. A clear line is often drawn between bands that are essentially a trio/quartet with "extras" and those who are able to work together as an effective orchestra of rock. Ravens & Chimes are a band from NYC that falls into the latter category, creating music that soars, dives and ultimately gets under your skin for good.
Ravens & Chimes have a healthy amount of formal music education spread throughout their ranks and use it to raise humble love songs to epic heights. "This is Where We Are", the opening track on their debut record, Reichenbach Falls, is a perfect example of the band's dynamic range. Featuring several distinct parts that run the gamut from a 16th-note guitar whisper to a Baracuda-esque gallop in a flash, it sets the tone for the rest of the band's repertoire. Howard Bilerman, best known for his production work on the Arcade Fire's first record, has recorded many young bands; Ravens & Chimes are fortunate enough to be one of them. Recent press has mentioned the band in the same breath as that other, famous group. The comparison scratches the sonic surface, but does no justice to R&C's songwriting talent and ability to craft a consistently engaging collection of songs.
And then there are those arrangements. If Bilerman can be given credit for the pristine production values on Reichenbach Falls, the arrangement credit goes to the band. Here, the multi-instrumental talents of the members come into play as range and timbre dictate the sonic composition of each song. Songs like "A Faraway Sound" and "General Lafayette! You Are Not Alone!" balances a morose, (purposely) muddy guitar riff with a synth line in the upper-mids and a piano chiming above it all. The rest of the record is filled with equally impressive displays of thoughtful instrumentation. Pianist Brittany Anjou plays her instrument like a more delicate Roy Bittan (it seems unfair to link every glockenspiel player with the E Street Band, but her combined musical talents do add an Asbury edge to the proceedings). Bassist Abe Pollack fills out the bottom end with just enough muscle to propel the music out of the indie-pop universe. On songs like "The Faraway Sound" he matches every tom hit with a melodic rumble that never showboats (Pollack also doubles on mandolin). On "The House Where You Were Born,” his mandolin playing is truly touching. Flutist/vocalist Nora Kelleher adds her melodic lines to the softer moments in songs like "Archways" and "For m." Avery Brooks is a knowledgeable synthesist, often playing snaky, counterpoint runs that drift just below the main mix. Newest member Mike Thies has been welcomed aboard to fill the shoes of drummer Rich Levinson, who played on the record.
While the music of Ravens & Chimes is an ensemble effort, the songwriting heart of the band is vocalist/guitarist Asher Lack. His characters are young, NYC transplants: college age romantics who spend a lot of time hanging out between Bleecker and Avenue A, falling in love, utilizing alcohol for emotional management and pretty much enjoying the bubble of undergraduate life. His vocals are never overbearing and if the words he writes spring from a well of youthful angst, his delivery is focused and calmly evocative. Lack has that knack for subtle infusion that eludes many young songwriters who attempt to name-drop NYC streets and landmarks. While Lack's voice is often the focal point, Anjou and Kelleher are indispensable, inseparable parts of the vocal team. They're popsters who serve the song with sweet, unaffected tones. During songs where the intensity is cranked up, the team works around their volume limitations as individuals in all the right ways, with many vocal lines being doubled. It's a trick that works every time.
Reichenbach Falls is also peppered with instrumental interludes that showcase this strength even more. Indeed, a hint of the possible direction that Raven & Chimes may take next lies in these instrumentals. Asher wrote the other compositions over a period of five years or so and admittedly takes the same, painstaking approach to songwriting as one of his influences, Leonard Cohen. Wordless, melodic tracks such as "Chloe" are beautifully constructed and confirm a band that has far more potential than the muse of one songwriter or even the sum of its musical parts. Reichenbach Falls may someday be looked on as a lovely record that laid out the blueprint for something even more wonderful. "We sort of trust each other," says Pollack. The rest nod in agreement. There is a team effort at work here (cooperation that even spreads to a Brooks/Pollack/Thies side project, Little Bear and the Bad Touch). With the new record out, Ravens & Chimes has successfully finished the first chapter of their promising music journey. On April 17, Jezebel Music cheers them on through the second.