Zelienople: Sleeper Coach
For those new to Zelienople, the achromatic photography adorning the Chicago quartet's second album Sleeper Coach provides a convenient analogue to the group's sound. Presumably taken from a moving vehicle, the cover's blurry forest image is a natural complement to the group's hazy, elusive sound; the clearly focused static panorama inside, however, suggests the expansiveness and stillness of its music—a group experimentally open yet clearheaded in its vision of itself.
Originating as a trio comprised of Matt Christensen (bass, vocals), Brian Harding (clarinet, keyboards), and Mike Weis (drums) and heavily influenced by minimalism, ambient, and psychedelic genres, the group released 2002's Pajama Avenue, a recording lauded for its explorative fusion of drone atmospherics and conventional song structures. Listening to Sleeper Coach, however, it's hard to imagine the band ever having existed without Neil Jendon, given how pivotal his guitar contributions are to the group. Spanning a remarkable spectrum, they chime, snarl, and groan, and sometimes deploy a piercing tone that evokes Robert Fripp's signature sound (especially on “Ship That Goes Down” which could easily pass for a Fripp homage), yet, just as often, his guitars caress.
On Sleeper Coach, the band's atmospheric side comes to the forefront in ten hazy, ethereal pieces. They're slow moving, almost dirge-like tracks featuring dense, congealing masses of instrumental sound and occasional vocals, the four musicians more intent on developing an overall fabric of sound than spotlighting individual playing. (Given its potential for exotic enrichment, though, Harding's clarinet could be incorporated more as a contrasting foil for Jendon.) The first four songs form a connecting suite of sorts, starting with the dreamy opener “Sea Bastards.” The contemplative drift of the album is established immediately by the song's ghostly droning shimmer and its scarred and twanging guitars; Christensen's appropriately hushed vocal merges into the ambient mass with Harding's deep clarinet tones resembling a horn faintly piercing through fog. Animated by a pulsating bass line, “Softkiller” showcases the group's talent for building tension as the piece moves towards an anticipated climax which the band resists releasing. Of the purely instrumental pieces, “Alleyville,” with its dreamy weave of woodsy clarinet, guitar, and what sounds like a harmonium, is particularly beautiful. “Ship That Goes Down,” though, is the moment where all the group's strengths coalesce. Here Jendon's razor guitars form a quietly reverberating mass that swoops and falls in majestic manner while the gentle, almost whispered vocal floats overtop; in addition, there's a lullaby-like lilt to the song's rhythm that enhances its appeal.
Zelienople begs comparison to groups like Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Spiritualized, the latter more for its similar fusion of psychedelic sounds with vocals. GYBE is the more natural reference, give that the Montreal collective and Zelienople share an affinity for hypnotic guitar atmospherics. Unlike GYBE, Zelienople is less epic in its approach and eschews prog-like twenty-minute works for succinct five minute pieces. In addition, Zelienople is a foursome in contrast to GYBE's mini-orchestra; consequently it falls to Jendon to exploit his sonic arsenal to generate the expansiveness of the band's dense sound. Zelienople is also more restrained than GYBE which makes it easier to underappreciate the quartet's subtle interaction. As Sleeper Coach's pieces hint at melody rather than overtly state them, Zelienople's music entices through carefully modulated suggestion.