3 out of 5
Label: Joyful Noise
Produced by: Jason Albertini
Falling somewhere between the college rock fuzz of early Pavement and lead Stephen Malkmus’ poppier, folkier later works, Jason Albertini’s Helvetia’s seventh album – the group pumping out something every few years with a rotating cast – Nothing in Rambling hits a somewhat familiar, dusty, indie Portland sound of lo-fi, pleasant jangle, elevated by the players’ keen ear for how much wiggle to allow in to their shuffle.
Recorded onto 8-track, Rambling is a haze of strummy guitar, Albertini’s mid-range hum – sticking with the references, rather close to Malkmus’ talky-sing with Scott Kannberg’s slightly chummier delivery – and a rattle of drums and bass and keys, all mixed with an ocean-wave hush of crackle. If I’m using a lot of workarounds to describe a singular sound – indie folk rock – well, yes: despite a lot of cool stuff going on under the hood, Helvetia’s presentation rather purposefully smoothes off nearly all edges. Catchy riffs don’t exactly percolate into surging choruses – they just carry us along on a head-bobbing rhythm, occasionally winding up in a conclusion, but just as occasionally fading out, rendering some of the songs as sketches, or demos. The lyrics hit this same level, as some words and lines stand out, but are buffered down to vague feelings by what follows. More positively, you don’t have to work to like this, and yet it’s also skewed enough to not come across as “easy” or fully accessible – there are some tonal swerves, and a slightly nervy vibe that plays counter to the rather poppy bass, and occasional shimmers of something like surf rock. Towards the end, the group finds a version of the formula that stands out more, with The Organ That Fought: the titular instrument leads the fray, and the group plays into their fuzzy sound instead of coasting along with it, giving the track a bit more energy and clatter. Granted, you can’t do that on every song, but a bit more of that could bump this out of the range of pleasant into notable.