Darlingside | Fish Pond Fish | (Thirty Tigers)
3 out of 5 stars
Virtually every description of the Massachusetts based Darlingside includes some reference to or variation of the words “lush,” “exquisite” and “literary.” That hasn’t changed on the quartet’s fourth album. Some may even claim these ten tunes delve even further into those adjectives.
Combine the sumptuous and often delicate harmony styles of the Beach Boys, Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash with odd, unusual lyrical ideas, winding melodies, and a mostly acoustic approach to understand where Darlingside’s music resides. These songs are a combination of pre-pandemic work in the studio tweaked by post-pandemic mixing, editing and arranging. Considering the Frankenstein process, the result feels remarkably organic, pure and natural. Perhaps this unconventional way of recording even helped craft these selections into shimmering, sometimes experimental, baroque pop. The band dubs its music, “string rock,” although calling anything here “rock” is pushing it.
The basic instrumentation of bass, guitar, banjo, cello, mandolin and violin is enhanced by subtle yet effective percussion. Although that may lead some to peg Darlingside as bluegrass, they are worlds away from that genre. Rather, these ingredients mesh into a dreamy, often ethereal and even unearthly whole that feels homey if sometimes a little aloof.
Darlingside hits it out of the park when everything coalesces, as it does in intricately arranged selections like “Ocean Bed” with its clip-cloppy percussion, fragrant mandolin and of course honeyed vocal harmonies. Elsewhere, “February/Stars” weaves angelic lead voices between wistful lyrics and slightly scratchy violin to push the track into the sweet spot where the music of Darlingside thrives.
But a little of this lush—there’s that word again—mood goes a long way. In the final third of the album, the lush mood starts to diminish. Taken individually, the tunes float through rarefied air, but at 43 minutes, they begin to feel dull. Mostly inscrutable words and melodies that dodge and weave with grace and beauty never seem to settle into a memorable chorus, creating a sensory, atmospheric experience. What seems to be missing is something that Brian Wilson always sought, even at his most impenetrable: recognizable melodies.
Taken in smaller bits, that may not be an issue. Over the disc’s 43 minutes, it’s noticeable and frustrating. At worst, Darlingside has carved out a unique sonic identity, something too few other acts can claim. Once that is molded into songs with folk-pop hooks, they might be irresistible.
Maybe next time.