The End of America‘s Steep Bay is nine songs and twenty-one minutes long. It is a very intimate affair, as it features live performances and found sound among its tracks. It’s the latest in a string of folk albums to come out of self-imposed banishments to rural areas to write (as popularized by Bon Iver). But For Emma, Forever Ago worked because of Justin Vernon’s slavish attention to mood and detail. Even though the guys in The End of America have the details down, they don’t have the mood hammered out on Steep Bay.
It’s a bummer, because the best moments of Steep Bay show that The End of America has something great to offer. The effortless calm of Novi Split’s intimate bedroom pop applied to the folk revival’s rustic songwriting ideals is a beautiful thing. Imagine if Mumford and Sons could be every bit as powerful without having to go for the jugular in every coda, and you’ve got a good approximation of “Fiona Grace” and “Oh Mousey.” But “These Things Are Mine” is an upbeat bluegrass meditation of sorts, and “Running” is a step removed from an old-school Dashboard Confessional acoustic emo song in strum pattern, melody and lyric. “Are You Lonely” is a meandering, morose tune. It all just doesn’t mesh at all.
The best moments here are the found sounds of “Diving Rock” and “Steep Bay.” “Diving Rock” is a recording of the members jumping off a rock into the bay, which leads directly into “Fiona Grace.” “Steep Bay” is a banjo rumination with the sound of pouring rain providing percussion, which is the single most beautiful moment on the album.
The End of America can write a great album if they spent more time at it, I think. They’re just not the “collective goes to cottage, produces masterpiece” type of band. There are flashes of brilliance on Steep Bay, but the overall product is a bit muddled by the lack of a coherent mood.