The Squid and the Whale – Advanced Directives
Piano-heavy rock is hard to find; good piano-heavy rock is as elusive as an albino albatross. But it’s certainly a treat to the ears. I started teaching myself piano almost a decade ago, and I spent a lot of time listening to Cool Hand Luke, Keane, Straylight Run, Falling Up, and so many other related acts. There’s a natural cinematic quality built in from the start, and this was the pivotal part of bands like K Sera and Umbrella Army. It would seem much of the popular piano literature assumes a classical mindset, and I’ve found it frustrating to try to compose in a manner similar to my inspirations. If you’re a pianist, you’re expected to either suit up and shut up or switch over the synthesizers.
By now, you can probably tell where I’m going. The Squid and the Whale craft theatrical indie rock with equal amounts of class and moxie. Sarah-Bryan Lewis fronts the group with her soaring voice. This is another subtle deviation—women tackling the world of music outside the bounds of pop. The group’s arrangements are lush and emotive, dynamic oscillations of tender melody and booming crescendos. There are hints of folk and Americana here, and the literary lyrical slant certainly gives a taste of The Decembrists to some degree. But at its core, it’s an amalgamation of piano, strings, and layered vocal counter-melodies that form the base of Advanced Directives.
Can seven tracks truly count as an album? Perhaps, given that four hover around the five-minute mark, and the opener, “Wolves,” is close to six minutes. What the band lacks in number of songs, they compensate for with their diverse set of sprawling numbers.
In fact, by the time “Counting Song” comes around, you’d easily be convinced the album is coming to a close. Vocal loops interweave under frenetic guitar parts and a powerful spoken word part. It builds, and builds, and builds. And where there’s tension, there’s release. The result feels like a sonic floodgate bursting open.
The lyrical sentiments are as philosophical as they are sarcastically sassy; Lewis is well-spoken and she has a knack for conveying emotion. At times, she channels her inner Lacey Sturm. At other times, she opts for a softer, folkier approach. The album is a record of ego death; it is an airport terminal, where you choose where to go next and what to take with you. It explores the ephemera of life and finite state of being.
But this is an album that feels remiss to talk about in parts. Indeed, it’s a compositional, full-band effort here that makes these songs work. I may not be the type of person who can tell how many Ableton layers go into a single song, but I can say much of what’s on the surface here is necessary. Remove any layer, and much of the charm is lost.
But even with this sense of grandeur, the band remains grounded in their humanity. Refer again to “Counting Song,” where the spoken word bit calls out artists milking the audience for a sense of affirmation. The fact this comes in at one of the busiest parts of the album carries a bit of humor—that some bands can say anything, and the audience will eat it up without a second thought.
Needless to say, this is an album you should pay attention to—maybe not down to each nuance, but at least enough to let the arrangements pull you into a beautiful undertow of serenity. This is neither a happy nor a sad album; it’s one that seems to encapsulate the complexity of human emotion all at once. Joy and grief, doubt and hope, frustration and acceptance.
Like many albums this year, especially ones released early on, Advanced Directives has largely flown under the radar. But it is a release that is seasoned and promises more to come. The Squid and the Whale know what they’re doing, and they’re carving out their own uncontested niche in modern rock.