Irish band hits stride with American debut
There’s Marissa, this week giving the lesbian lifestyle a try, blankly staring from behind fashionably lanky brown hair and deciding that maybe it is alright to have a Valentine’s Day date with punky, crack-skinny Alex. Cut to Sandy, with his black caterpillar eyebrows crawling together and apart as he faces Kirsten, who has shredded his roses in the disposal because she believes he’s cheating with his ?rst love. Then cut to the adorkable Seth, pining for a girl again, shuffling along the Newport Beach pier and whining and sighing and whining some more about all the lucky, happy couples in the OC.
Then the waves crash, and we zoom in on Alex and Marissa, sitting close in the nighttime sand. “The tide just turned,” Alex says, nearly winking. Marissa still looks blank. They lean in and share their ?rst kiss.
All the while, in the background, we hear the melancholy strains of Bell X1’s “Eve, the Apple of My Eye.” With its mournful falsetto, I-can-barely-get-out-of-bed piano, and lyrics like “You left, I died / I went and you cried,” the aching ballad is very much at home in the context of a teenage soap opera.
Thankfully, “Eve” is the only song on the Irish quartet’s American debut that seems so readymade for overwrought TV. The rest of Flock, originally released in Ireland in 2006, shows a depth of musicality and imagination too great to serve simply as a sonic backdrop for the tired angst of southern California rich kids.
Less could be expected of Bell X1, given the group’s history. The band started about a decade ago in North County Kildaire as Juniper, fronted by a gushy Damien Rice. But after Rice’s departure for a successful solo career (“band harmony was a scarce commodity,” according to Bell X1’s bio), drummer Paul Noonan took over at the mic, and he and his mates rushed out their ?rst sans-Rice record.
The group’s next album, Music in Mouth, took about three years to complete, and was met with high praise, even though Rice’s in?uence was still apparent and much of the album had a soggy, Better Than Ezra feel. But on Flock, Noonan and his cohorts break out. Noonan’s vocals are lovely like Rice’s, but not quite so precious; they’re livelier and the lyrics are more intellectually interesting, a la Thom Yorke. And deeper listens will bring up other pleasing similarities. On “Flame,” for instance, a crowd singalong reminiscent of Modest Mouse gives way to a vocal warble that sounds like David Byrne. There’s also a welcome grit to Noonan’s lyrics, a complexity of instrumentation and a willingness to take risks, whether looping a frisky, frenetic piano riff on “My First Born For a Song,” or using the name “Bad Skin Day” for a song Noonan says is about “the general sense of inadequacy” he sometimes feels. The latter is a special, beautiful track with soaring strings and heavy cymbals as part of a drum-machine-style percussion, building to a joyful noise that then deconstructs as the song drifts to an end.
To be sure, Flock isn’t pitch-perfect throughout. Some creative choices don’t quite work, like the incongruous pre-chorus cowbell on “Bigger Than Me,” and the Violent Femmes-ish guitar on “Reacharound.”
But Bell X1 is maturing into one of Ireland’s great bands. It may never be on the scale of a U2, but it has for now surpassed former frontman Rice. Flock will prove that Bell X1 is, in its own right, an incredibly valuable export.