San Fermin albums
Lead songwriter Ellis Ludwig-Leone has a thematic album concept in mind, that plays like a call and response between male and female vocals backed with a full orchestra. Ludwig-Leone does not sing his own songs though he plays several instruments, lead duties go to bas singer Alan Tate who does a great job of creating a haunting atmosphere and you can tell he is classically trained. A variety of female vocalists also sing lead with Tate, mainly Charlene Kaye. A lot of people compare them to Sufjan Stevens or The National, which is true on the surface but there is more to it, like how really the sound is more of an heir of Lambchop and the chamber pop explosion of the mid 1990’s. Just because the male singer has a bass (not baritone) voice does not mean he obviously is trying to copy, say, Steven Merritt. Whomever is singing lead, the scope and breadth of this music is huge, often approaching classical orchestra bombast.
Ellis Ludwig-Leone (keyboards), Allen Tate (vocals), Rebekah Durham (violin, vocals), John Brandon (trumpet), Stephen Chen (saxophone), Tyler McDiarmid (guitar), Michael Hanf (drums), Rae Cassidy (vocals, 2013-14), Charlene Kaye (vocals, 2014-present)
American Music Club, Lambchop, Tindersticks, Sufjan Stevens
2013 – (5 / 5) – San Fermin
2015 – (4 / 5) – Jackrabbit
2017 – (3.5 / 5) – Belong
San Fermin – (5 / 5)
A landmark album that is perhaps too long but overflowing with good ideas so it hardly matters. At a sprawling 17 tracks, there are about eleven or twelve full length songs that have the mark of rock-opera all around them. Ludwig-Leone planned the record as a call and response between male and female vocalists as they graduate from school. Song range between the jovial youth recollection “Sonsick” (best song about growing up ever made?), the dark and emotional “Renaissance” (one of my favorite album openers of all time), the Arcade Fire-esque rock of “Bar” (great emotional climax at minute mark 3:49) and emotional catharsis in closer “Daedalus” where it all comes together. These four songs rank among the great songs of the 2000’s for sure, even though they are buried within the texture of a dense album. Lyric sample: “There’s a mob at the door, I hear them / calling /for my head” is the perfect emotional chorus that many rock musicians aim to create but few succeed at.
It should also be noted that this is a true “album”, and it plays like one. It may be longer than most at 57 minutes, but it is very well thought out and even the little instrumental snip-its compliment the songs (“Lament for VG”, “In the morning”, “At Sea”) along the way. “The Count” is a fun avant-rock blast through odd time signatures and bassoon blasting choruses, while “Torero” and “Crueler Kind” laments the follies of youth in a way Nick Cave would. “Methuselah” is an old-fashioned folk tune that seems to come along to send the listener relaxing vibes amid all of this emotional devastation. “Cassanova” is yet another moving ballad that is just gorgeous to listen too, with it’s worldy knowledge reaching a pedestal that ias rare in rock music. “In Waiting” and “Oh Darling” are the slowest parts of the record, and while they are not boring per se, if I would have cut something for time’s sake, it would be these two songs to make it all more concise.
Still the record grows on you, and we have not had this kind of multilayered full album experience enough in rock music, it is the heir of Tindersticks’ self-titled first album and Lambchop’s I Hope Your Sitting Down, Arcade Fire’s Funeral. It’s rare that one group of musicians can mix classical instrumentation, moving emotional balladry, popular music cadences, and progressive rock aspirations all on one album. I can’t wait to see what this band does in the future.
Greatest songs: Renaissance, Sonsick, Bar, Daedalus, Torero, Cassanova
Jackrabbit – (4 / 5)
Jackrabbit is a good follow up that continues the sound of the debut. That sound is still an odd mix of chamber pop, orchestration, and elegant melodies. This record is significantly shorter than the last, which was the right move. Opener “The Woods” is anthemic and frightening, again highlighting the use of bassoon as a major rock music instrument (also flute). New singer Charlene Kaye is well utilized on ”Jackrabbit” and “Two Scenes” while Alan Tate dominates most of the good songs on the record like the melodic “Emily”, and emotive “Woman in Red”. There is the same use of back in forth between male and female vocals, and it works well though not as unique as on the debut.
A new kind of energy is present on the viola led “Reckoning” that is nifty enough to propel a whole album worth of ideas. Sweet instrumental “the Cave” and the moody “Parasites” are good tunes that keep one’s attention, though perhaps lacking the energy of past great songs. “Ladies Mary” is a nice and atmospheric tune that would have perhaps done better as an album closer that at place number two on the record. Still, there is some filler present this time around, and songs such as “Astronaut”, ”Philosopher” and “Billy Babbit” do absolutely nothing and should have been cut. Jackrabbit is indeed the little cousin of San Fermin the debut, but perhaps next time around we could use a dose of energy and verve that this record lacks a bit, though the good songs on here far exceed the bad. The tradeoff between singers one male one female now reminds one of Jim Steinman’s productions- Pandora’s Box, Meatloaf, etc.
Greatest Songs: “The Woods”, “The Reckoning”, “Woman in Red”, “Two Scenes”, “Emily”
Belong – (3.5 / 5)
Every album of San Fermin has been reigning in their sound more and more, and Belong is the 3rd record and no exception to this rule. It opens with a trio of winning songs: the yearning ”Open” where Charlene Kaye pleads with the listener to give up their soul to the music, then the jovial super pop of “Bride” segues into the Tate led “Oceanica” perhaps the most quintessential song of the record with stops in the flow of the music often to achieve a sort of majestical crescendo in the chorus. San Fermin are reliable throughout the album for fans of their established brand of orchestrated rock music, other winners in this vein are the catchy “Cairo” and the evil sounding “Dead” which recalls “The Count” from the debut album. Still, many of the other tunes fail to have staying power as much, though parts stick out in the charming “Perfume” and “August”. It’s the band’s weakest so far, hinting that some kind of drastic change of tempo or style may reinvigorate their music. As it is, fans of the band should be satisfied with another San Fermin record that is solid enough to give us a couple more live staples.
Greatest Songs: Cairo, Oceanica, Dead, Open