It’s been a while since I’ve unabashedly championed an album, so I kind of forget how this is supposed to go. Let me start with the basics: James Wallace plays under the moniker Wintercoats. He’s an Australian multi-instrumentalist who records everything by himself via a loop machine. When I say multi-instrumentalist, I don’t mean he records the guitar, drums, and bass by himself. I mean, he’s a fucking *multi-instrumentalist*. He’s his own goddamn orchestra! But forget Wallace does this all himself. Imagine it’s a full band. This is such an incredible EP—I don’t care if it took sixty people to make it—I’m actually saddened it’s only an EP. I need—we all need—a full album of this stuff.
The amazing thing is, Cathedral is really pretty simple. Wallace layers the music in strings, glockenspiel, piano, and flute, but it’s not heavy at all. Given the weight and quantity of baroque instrumentation present, the sound almost comes off as minimal when they’re actually applied. Wallace wraps his soft voice in reverb and sings humble, quiet melodies, sometimes sounding like the English-speaking version of Jonsi Por Birgisson of Sigur Ros. Often times, Wallace will repeat phrases over and over, functioning as a pseudo-chorus, and while repetition is a mixed bag to some, he nails it completely. Generally, like on “Windmill,” the song starts innocuously before slowly expanding into a cozy lushness of baroque arrangement.
Wallace’s violin mastery (the instrument he plays live), is akin to the unique pop sensibilities of violin virtuoso, Andrew Bird, but Wallace goes beyond Bird’s pop ambitions. And while clearly an in-depth album (how’s ukulele sound, Mr. Wallace?), the restraint to keep the songs from getting anywhere close to grandiose is spectacular. In my recent review of Portugal. The Man’s In The Mountain, In the Cold, I panned the band’s otherwise sterling musicianship for a numbing knack of aggrandizing their selves into quite a clutter. Here, Wallace never hints at such contrivances. God bless ‘em.
I really, really like “The Overture” and “Windmill,” the opening tracks, respectively. I *adore* “Unbearable Thinking” and “Cathedral.” On the first two, Wallace definitely plays around with repetition, in a roundabout way. On the last two, the songs’ hooks (if you can call them that) are made by his even more direct refrains; “you can’t disguise something as if it were nothing” in “Unbearable Thinking” is beautifully desolate. The repeated refrain “Cathedral” is more whimsical, albeit tempered, due to a brightly plucked guitar and chirping falsetto harmonies. A warbled bed of dark strings undercuts the musical whimsy in such a captivating fashion, and when he starts repeating laconically “it’s all I’ve wanted for a while,” well, it’s flooring.
Again, I can’t help but feel a bit cheated here. This should be a full album. This should rank among the best things of 2011, but alas, EPs are short stories in a world meant for novels. However brief this output feels, there is so much emotional resonance contained in Cathedral. I absolutely cannot recommend this album hard enough; I can’t wait to see what Wintercoats has in store.
1. The Overture
3. Unbearable Thinking