Apparently the use of whistling and ukulele in pop music was never done before someone hatched the term “twee” to describe indie music that sounded like something other than “indie music.” It was a little happier than an Eels album, a little less nihilistic than a Moldy Peaches track, and a little more aloof than a Bright Eyes song. And so “Twee” became just the jar we needed to capture that renegade firefly and seal it into the confinement of all its critics would allow it to be and no more. Then along came Noah and the Whale with a debut in Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down that indulged all those trappings without the slightest apology–and folks over at places like Pitchfork or The Independent damned them to hell for it in reviews so seething with invective they almost caught fire as you read them.
“That really is the first word that will come into your head when you hear the ukulele, recorder and whistling refrain of their catchy hit ditty, ‘5 Years Time’,” the BBC insisted. “The London folk-pop quartet bites its best sensitive-indie forebears and then pukes up all the most superficial chunks,” Pitchfork bloviated in a gratuitously acerbic review that betrayed the very desperation to be “hip” they criticized the album for. Never mind that the ukulele also was the first instrument ever played by Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. Or that Paul Simon was whistling along with his stories about hanging with Julio down by the schoolyard a hell of a long time before the snot-nosed Hip Police at Pitchfork were born, a song that plays like a clinic in the kind of sunny, acoustic pop that people too young to know any better mistake for something no one had ever thought of before Belle & Sebastian.
But while the folks at Pitchfork and elsewhere lifted their noses in reviews that served no purpose other than to show you how much smarter and more hip they are than you, the duped and lowly Noah and the Whale fan, the band played on with a sophomore release in First Days of Spring that even compelled Pitchfork to whisper a yawning half-praise here and there but, of course, only through the gritted teeth of another absurdly decimalized score as if records were goals kicked in a schoolyard soccer game (this time, a 5.2 to the previous record’s 2.6. Yay.). Too often the critical derision Noah and the Whale have garnered sounds like the juvenile taunting of those skater dudes back in 7th grade who skewered you for listening to Ace of Base while everyone else was listening to Nirvana.
That’s a shame, because the music those critics couldn’t hear over the noise of their egos evinced an emotional honesty and maturity that rivaled just about any so-called “twee” band they cared to name. First Days of Spring documented the human moment in which Charlie Fink stood so deep inside the dark space left behind by his ex–sometime band mate and Mercury Prize winner Laura Marling–that the music he made there yielded a peculiar mix of icy shrieks of violin and the vaguely hopeful honks of brass that colored the decidedly sunnier “Shape of My Heart” from the band’s debut. Then the whole thing crashes to earth in a stirring homage to Neil Young with a surprisingly grungy intrusion of distorted guitar. Or was it “surprising,” really? Perhaps, if it sounded like something you don’t remember bottling in that jar you labeled “twee” long ago and left to its dusty shelf in the underused garage of your taste.
To those of us who heard the band beyond the twee, the song–and the whole album, really–announced the arrival of a group whose aesthetic was still much too restless to be categorized. Maybe their debut sounded like something you heard before, but First Days of Spring turned such a cold shoulder to that initial dip in the shallow end of the pool that even the most intractable critic had to listen with open ears. Now the crew is back with their third release, Last Night on Earth, and a new single in “L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.” that completes exactly the kind of emotional arc anyone might expect of a kid in his early twenties: the syrupy gush of innocence on World Lays Me Down, the stunned, endearing realization that relationships can really suck on First Days of Spring, and now, of course, the recognition that life goes on.
The new single is a strong and instantly catchy pop ditty about down-and-outers teasing the verge of lost lives, people who “wear their hatred like a map on their face,” enjoy the taste of brandy a little more than they ought to, and don’t always bother getting to know people before sleeping with them. Musically the track sounds like someone hired the Kinks to play a new-wave slow-dance tune at an early-80s prom. But most of all the song sounds like Mr. Fink talking himself into moving on from heartbreak. “What you don’t have now will come back again,” he argues, “You got heart, and you’re going your own way.” Indeed he is, both personally and musically, and the music he makes in the meantime is worth the listen they can’t seem to get from critics who think they know better.