Originally appeared on the Music Court.
There is a very important reason why Freelance Whales is my favorite band: prolific banjo-manship. I do not know why, but I just love banjos in all their plucky glory. My earliest banjo memory is when I was a kid watching Steve Martin on SNL perform a silly tune called “Late For School” where he played that glorious instrument. I was hooked. Monuments and Statues’ debut album,Fractals, features prominently a banjo, so, needless to say, I’ve been listening to it on repeat.
Monuments and Statues are from Kingston, Ontario and are handy with a metaphor. In an explanation of the title of the record, they explain the instrumentation therein is akin to fractals: expanding, yet constant and centered. Most tracks feature two or three vocalists- Geoff Reith and Mackenzie Bromstad, with help from Laura Barker occasionally- a cello, and a banjo, but none of the songs sound remotely similar. The album opens with a chant-along ballad, “Oh Great Rose!” and we are immersed in the harmonized beauty of the record.
“Galafax” is my favorite, so also in my opinion the best, track on the record. From the start, it feels like Sufjan will begin whispering in my ear; the guitar, then piano melodies feel stolen from an outtake of Illinois, though the tail of the song feels like it came from Age of Adz. A whirring picks up behind the track and speeds up, resisting the gentle lyrics and stubborn horns. And of course, not least are the lyrics: they are poetic, and not coincidentally self-aware:
“On a road that’s travelled by bike and feet
And a girl singing this melody
In straights of homes this cannot be
Straight from the mouth of the sycamore tree
For the sound is made like poetry
For the sound is written like poetry”
The cellos take center stage in “Speak of the Sea.” This is a smart album, made by undoubtedly very clever people, and this song is evidence. Here we realize this is a progressing story, with Bromstad as our narrator. If “Galafax” was about pre-separation anxiety, “Speak of the Sea” is the split. And it’s heartbreaking. The pacing of the track is enlightened, stamping out the ends of the lines to erupt in impatient cellos. By the end, the vocal harmonies shine through, and it becomes all but a cappella. It’s beautiful throughout, and the lyricism again enchants:
“Hear the call of the woods and sound of the brook
Through the old kitchen window we would never look
And I haven’t seen the ghost in days
Since he locked us in the basement
And the houses and the buildings
Doors are slamming in the wind
And the town has been deserted
Since the mine has proven worthless again
And I’ve never seen the wind blow
Knocking off the scarecrow’s head”
The proof of excellence in album-writing is when you can create characters or tangible themes to touch upon throughout the album. The interlude “Why Do You Follow” is brief but makes sure to bring back the great and grateful (full of great?) rose from the very beginning. This is essentially a reprise of a sample of the opening track, and is followed by an explicit reprise of “Galafax.” The vocals are untouched, and the song written down would appear identical to the original; however, the instrumentation is what I would approximate is the exact opposite of banjos and cellos. That goes to show that the fractal reached a point that I couldn’t recognize, morphed and unrecognizable, but there were banjos and cellos after all (as well as xylophones and drums). With tracks one and two back at the forefront, it feels that the record has written itself into an infinite loop. It is broken only by the final track, “Life,” which seems to relinquish just that. All we fought for and cherished, we then lost and forgot. Giving in, Monuments and Statues concludes,
“I am light leading your walk back home
But I know you’ll walk where you want to go”