Music: Noah and the Whale

Nov 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson



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Noah and the Whale, L-R: Violinist Tom Hobden, guitarist/singer Charlie Fink, drummer Doug Fink and bassist Urby.

Noah and the Whale, L-R: Violinist Tom Hobden, guitarist/singer Charlie Fink, drummer Doug Fink and bassist Urby.

“I'm just in the process of buying some flowers, so if you hear me asking about flowers, that's why,” Noah and the Whale leader, singer and songwriter Charlie Fink cheerily explains from a noisy cell phone in the heart of London. “Otherwise I'm completely engaged.” The magic moment comes a few minutes later when I'm in mid-question. Fink tells a clerk, “I'd like a pink rose, a red rose and a white rose.”


"First Days of Spring" MP3

Normally, this sort of information would not find its way into a story I would write. But it's significant in this case because Noah and the Whale's just-released new album, The First Days of Spring — already a critical and commercial hit in England — is a deeply moody (but brilliant) concept album/song cycle about a breakup — reportedly, Fink's relationship with occasional Noah associate Laura Marling, whose excellent debut album, Alas I Cannot Swim, Fink produced, presumably in happier times. “Are you buying flowers for a girl?” I ask Fink, and he just laughs. One hopes the dark days and nights that produced The First Days of Spring are well behind him now; certainly, he sounds more like the happy-go-lucky soul who warbled (along with Marling) the group's insanely catchy 2008 Top 10 British hit “5 Years Time” (popularized here thanks to a Saturn car commercial and college radio play). The album that song came from — their debut, Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down — made it all the way to Number 5 in England; previously, they'd been favorites on the indie folk circuit and released a couple of singles (including a different version of “5 Years Time”).

When I mention to Fink that he doesn't sound like a guy who just made one of the great end-of-relationship albums, he laughs again, and says, “It's a bizarre thing doing music. You write some songs that are incredibly meaningful to you when you're writing them, and there's a gap period of time, and then you record them, and then after an even larger gap of time, you talk about them when the album's ready. I'm always trying to express something that's relevant to me, so what's relevant six months or a year ago in my life might be a little different than what's relevant to me now. Still, the songs mean as much as they did then, and they're expressions of particular emotions so I have no trouble at all singing them and I feel comfortable talking about them.”

Fans of the first album's breezy acoustic folk-pop and D.I.Y. aesthetic are in for quite a surprise when they hear The First Days of Spring. Aside from the bleaker subject matter — though the first album wasn't all “sun, sun, sun,” to quote “5 Years Time,” by any means — the sonics and the overall vibe are completely different. Many of the tempos are languorous, as befits the subject matter, and the dominant instrument on many songs is spare electric guitar — Fink's 1961 Fender Jaguar played through a 1962 Fender Twin — or solemn piano, perfect accompaniment for the singer's fragile and expressive baritone. Brother Doug Fink's percussion ranges from tympani to a conventional kit that's heavy on the toms; in other words, darker tones. There are tasteful string arrangements courtesy of the group's talented violinist, Tom Hobden, as well as occasional horns and a judiciously used choir. One song, “For the Love of an Orchestra,” features a fully symphonic sound blended with one of Fink's more driving tunes. Bassist Matt “Urby” Owens rounds out the group sound with his imaginative playing.

For this album, the group turned to American engineer/producer Emery Dobyns, who is probably best known for his work in this decade with Patti Smith, Suzanne Vega and Travis. Indeed, it was having worked with that last group — another band quite popular in Britain; less so here — that first brought Dobyns to RAK Recording in London, where he later recorded The First Days of Spring over a three-week period. “We'd talked about working with Emery before,” Fink says, “and for whatever reason it didn't happen. Then his name came up again and we did a trial session two months before we went in to record the album proper, and things just clicked. I think one thing that was important was his confidence in the project from the start — he clearly understood and believed in what it was meant to be.” Dobyns engineered the album and co-produced with Fink, working in RAK's large 30×20 main room, which adjoins a control room housing a 1970s API console. (The studio was built in an old Victorian schoolhouse in the mid-'70s by noted English producer Mickie Most.)

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