Friday, December 30, 2011

Harvesting Habits - PoorWater - 2011

PoorWater may be on to something. This five-piece prog outfit from Mesa, Arizona have just released their recording debut, Harvesting Habits, and it has quietly worked its way into my regular rotation with the usual crew of heavies. It's not a perfect record (how many debuts are?) and seems frequently to be searching to find its place but, when it does, it shines.

The star is immediately evident. Lauren Jones on cello damn near owns the entire album, immediately recalling for me Jessy Greene's violin contributions to the Geraldine Fibbers (oh, to be back in '95...). Strings are nothing new or unusual on a progressive rock record but she's got a tone that demands the listener's attention and dominates from the get-go, instantly grabbing hold via the brief instrumental opener, "Found." The following track, "Answers," is one that flounders, unfortunately, with lead vocals on the track turning in what happens to be the weakest performance on the album, an over-emotive wail that fails to convince despite its hammy delivery, hung over a meandering melody that fails to ever find a groove. It's a rough start to the album and one I worry may send potential listeners packing too early.

Hang on. It gets a lot better.

"Dagger" offers a marked improvement with the lead guitar matching Jones and the listener can begin to discern a synchronicity of strings that rises above application of bows or fingers and speaks in song. It all comes together, then, on "Existential Crisis" which, despite its egghead title, is a stellar, stellar song. The vocals hit their sweet spot and stay within a range that fit the feel of the bands' strengths. Jones speaks just as loudly and at 2:48, her cello and the lead guitar achieve an interplay that is simply mesmerizing.

"Across War Torn Lands" stands as true full-blown prog with epic potential. There are some spectacular duelling licks between cello and guitar that are just too brief. I would love to hear these expanded and, in a live setting, heavily improvised. The track ends rather abruptly, almost as if unfinished. Easily the best on the record, I would love to hear this one developed further, stretched to twice its length and given a proper outro.

By this point PoorWater have hit their stride and the meaty midsection of Harvesting Habits can be deemed an out and out pleasure. The title track offers the first notable real bass workout, courtesy of Nate Graham, and while really just some roundabout noodling, it's nice to hear a more loosely structured song with room for the players to stretch out a bit. In "Anxiety" all strings meld perfectly, resulting in an intriguing, lower-profile favorite of mine.

"Keygripped" tries out a range of vocal dynamics - from whisper to sinister spoken word to a muppety wail - none of which work, and the song ultimately fails despite an interesting, engaging musical structure. "Lost" offers an atmospheric instrumental closer, largely a cello piece, and, while nice enough, feels like the bookend it is. Clocking in at five minutes it overstays its welcome by about three minutes.

Harvesting Habits' production likely does not do PoorWater's potential justice. It's a sharp and shallow sound and needs to be deep, wide and warm. James Shihady's percussion comes across as overly thin and lacking power. I am also not sold on the vocals, which inconsistently range from unbearable to inoffensive but never reach great. PoorWater's bio info credits both Devin Frutiger and Richard Rockwood with guitars and vocals though I do not know if one in particular consistently sings lead. They've got the guitars down and the vocal harmonies are almost always spot-on - may be a case of simply settling on a primary vocalist and playing to his strengths.

The end result: I suggest any mainstream prog fan give PoorWater a listen. Harvesting Habits is a record that is greater than the sum of its parts (though, admittedly, at least two or three of those parts sound pretty damn great). The players are onto something and I would be happy to hear more from them in the future. In the meantime I cannot help but wonder - can Lauren sing?

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