The End of America – Steep Bay (album)

TEOA - The Steep Bay coverThere are times when cultural differences, no matter how small and minor, seem signficant. It’s my conclusion that Steep Bay by The End of America suffers from these – from my perspective, at least. But Steep Bay is an album that remembers the expansive landscapes of North America rather than the cramped rural countryside of England; that hearkens back to a different folk tradition and different national memories and histories.

But let’s start at the beginning: this album is a concept album that takes as its inspiration a very simple, earthy desire. The three members of the band set out to escape the distractions and trappings of modern society, to head out into the isolation and remoteness of the wilderness, and then to record music exploring the inspiration they derived from the environment and from their friendship and shared love of music.

This is a lovely idea, and I wish that what it had produced was something I found more engaging. Alas, the small and subtle differences I mentioned above may have been enough to throw a chasm between what inspires me and what inspired Steep Bay. But with the possible unfairness of my criticisms set aside, here’s why the album didn’t work for me.

Lyrically, the album can seem a little uninspired. The opener ‘Are You Lonely’ repeats three lines: “Are you lonely up there? Do you ever feel alone? You look so close, but are so far away.” Perhaps the intention is to recall childlike innocence in looking at the stars, but to me it feels like a slip into cliche. Or there is ‘Oh Mousey’, for which the lyrics are literally the title repeated over a minute and a half. The lyric sheet instead states “What is freedom to a mouse in a jar?”, a statement pregnant with hollow wisdom.

Happily there are songs which demonstrate lyrical skill and storytelling insight. ‘Fiona Grace’ is a song about a little girl – perhaps the singer’s daughter – which far more effectively recalls childlike innocence and beauty. In fact, I’ll quote the second verse in full:

We talked about Bob Marley in the sandbox the other day
She said she likes his songs & sings them with her mom and dad
And she told me how he died a long time ago
I asked her what that meant
She said, “He’s dormant now. His spirit went back to the source.”
And I froze upon those words
Coming out of the mouth of that red haired little girl

Not bad, hey? There are other lyrical moments of strength, too, like ‘These Things Are Mine’ which acknowledges the value of the singer’s youth and re-imagines possessions as memories and sensations.

Musically I also found the record quite hit and miss. ‘All, Nothing’ is a slow, sensitive song built around the juxtaposition of vocal repetition and variation towards the end of each line; the aforementioned ‘Fiona Grace’ features simple handclap/thighslap percussion and a charming, simple guitar riff. The vocals are also gruffer – lending credence to my suspicion that this is a song about the daughter of a band member.

I also mentioned ‘These Things are Mine’ which is a fairly jaunty tune and features a bit of banjo action, but still only manages a fairly middle of the road whole. ‘The Hardest Thing’ doubles up on guitar and banjo and adopts a slightly more adventurous style of vocal delivery, producing a more compelling whole.

Although there are some moments of beauty scattered amongst the duller parts of Steep Bay, I wonder if its isolated, deliberately traditionalist origins have managed to produce music that would be hugely affecting around a campfire, under the stars, but feel dated and uninteresting outside of that context. Or perhaps it is that the traditional styles of music the band draw upon to produce this record have been done so often that they’ve already been reduced to cliché. Or perhaps this is simply not music for me. From a subjective standpoint, it’s impossible to say, but I can say that I found Steep Bay more tedious than affecting.

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