Halfset founding member Jeff Martin isn’t leaving without a fight. Previous jammings with the instrumentalists kind of powdered to nothing, with each member bustling around their own distractions and solo escapades. But don’t be sad, Martin has taken a leap forward with Ghost Maps, if you could ever find your way on such a translucent thing.
‘The Ocean From The River’ is his fourth album; nothing has quite stuck to this point. Undeservedly, ‘The Ocean From The River’ is sliding down the wall as well, despite showing due progress and familiarity with his craft. This is a guy who’s on his fourth record, but you didn’t need to hear that again, just dig in and listen to the indications yourself.
The Ocean and a Lover is an interesting opener, atmospheric with an almost uncomfortable turn. Martin’s gentle but morose voice doesn’t take a lot of getting used to, but topping the jaunty instrumentals it eases in, and then crashes to keep things interesting. Like an ocean itself, it’s not that daring unless you’re on the brink of going out too far. Lyrics are kind of nothingy, “Can you tell the difference between an ocean and a lover?” reads like an amateur Shall I compare thee? Of course we can, explain why we shouldn’t.
Martin’s limited vocal is stretched to the max on Morning Echoes but lifts like the first sunlight coming through a dusty window. Again, it steadily wanders to a drama of heavy percussion; Martin has a habit of starting gentle with a big finish. John McEntire’s stand-out drumming on Hollow Castles overshadows drones of “I would risk regret for you”, which, regretfully, we could live without knowing.
On a more celebratory note, Vanilla weeps some serious Bronski Beat vibes, while still anchored with that underlying melancholy. These tracks can’t shake it, and we don’t particularly want them to. There’s further proof here that Martin knows exactly when to end a track, it’s a gift that’s too sparingly given out. Swirling to a satisfying build-up like its namesake ice-cream flavour, it’s anything but plain, just simple.
Being so heavily reliant on instrumentals and long periods of keys, it gives a cinematic quality to the whole thing. If I Knew Where I Was I’d Be There, (with Tony Crow tinkling the keys, between McEntire and himself, Martin stewed some perfect musical soup) it wouldn’t be out of place in some well-to-do movie montage. He’s getting there, and this is what’s soundtracking him as he cuts through the sun-drenched meadows. A melodic high, it’s a welcome little interval, along with Prevails later on down the record. Similarly, the folk-pop of Fade should not be played unless you have some snow-covered Rocky Mountains at your disposal, dammit. The impulse is just too much.
Just when things start to feel a bit samey surprises like The Valley inject some straight up alt-rock Americana, the perfect grungy stand-out to pull you back. But they do, feel samey. However, this is a record that flaunts Martin’s perfect refrain, he’s got it all mastered so all that’s left to do is work on that glue.