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By Nate Jackson
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Water Is Wide
Aquatic imagery runs deep in Sea Wolf’s songs
Sea Wolf began life as the solo outing of Alex Brown Church after he left Irving, the sunny LA psych-pop band he co-founded. But while Sea Wolf’s debut album, Leaves In the River, was a solemn, folk-rooted affair only somewhat lit with full-band instrumentation, the new White Water, White Bloom is a robustly orchestrated affair, and Sea Wolf’s touring lineup has grown to a sturdy six-piece. It’s no longer a one-man thing, though Church remains the primary creative force.
“Sea Wolf is still my project,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to involve other people, like friends and now semi-permanent, full-time members. That being said, the idea of a singular vision still appeals to me. So right now, I’m kind of doing both.” He explains that his band mates contributed their fair share of parts to the new album, but he “pushed and pulled them in certain directions” while singing, writing and playing acoustic guitar on the songs himself.
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While Sea Wolf’s touring band also includes lead guitarist Aaron Robinson and cellist Catherine Odell, the recording band for White Water, White Bloom was Church, keyboardist Lisa Fendelander, bassist Theodore Liscinski and drummer Joey Ficken. Omaha-based producer Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes, Monsters of Folk) filled in on lead guitar, while Bright Eyes’ Nate Walcott played cello and wrote arrangements for a visiting string quartet. Such lushness works as an engine for booming grandeur, as on the Arcade Fire-recalling opener “Wicked Blood,” and as a way of underscoring a song’s naked beauty, as on the shiver-inducing “Orion & Dog.”
Stepping up the band’s breadth was a natural progression from Leaves In the River, Church says. “It originated from touring behind [that] record and realizing how much more dynamic the songs could sound live. I wanted to really capture that vibrant quality. Being the second record, we also wanted to do new things, like having a string quartet and different sounds.”
White Water, White Bloom could be read as following the change of seasons, but Church makes it clear he didn’t intend that. On the other hand, the specter of the great outdoors is unmistakable in the sublime stargazing of “The Orchard” and the almost-magical imagery of “Dew In the Grass.”
“I would say it influences them a good deal,” Church says, “though I wouldn’t compare myself to John Denver. I just tend to be drawn to natural beauty because of its classic nature.”
Another notable occurrence in Sea Wolf’s world is metaphors centered on water, from the band’s moniker to the title of each album. Like nature, which gives Church cause to sing in everything from a harrowing bark to a caressing croon, the range of water’s forms makes the theme flexible.
“Maybe it’s just that I can’t think of anything else to write about,” Church says, laughing. “I think I like the tumultuous and fluid nature of oceans and rivers, the ephemeral quality of them.”
The band’s name was taken from Jack London’s 1904 adventure novel The Sea-Wolf. Church appreciated how the two words looked and sounded together, and he had felt a connection with the The Call of the Wild writer since childhood. London hailed from the Bay Area, as does Church, and the author’s natural settings and unflinching subject matter have been of lasting appeal to Church as an adult.
Lest we pigeonhole him as a barefoot forest dweller, there are songs on Church’s new album of a more familiar rock model. Despite being sidelined with all manner of fauna, the standout “O Maria!” is a crunchy stomper rife with powerful word choices. “The Traitor” evokes streetcars, spiral stairs, “Spanish blue stockings” and other earmarks of civilization, despite carrying the scent of a traditional folk ballad. Both in theme and instrumentation, it’s an album with enough range to surprise anyone used to the starker corners of Sea Wolf’s debut.
As they kick off a six-week North American tour, the band will be joined on a string of California dates by Afternoons, featuring the other members of Church’s former outfit, Irving. Asked what lessons he picked up from his years spent in that band, Church doesn’t mince words.
“I learned everything,” he says. “Irving was pretty much a democracy, with everybody contributing songs. Because of that, you had to make sure your songs were good enough. That was a big learning experience.”
Sea Wolf with Afternoons and Sara Lov at Detroit Bar, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0600; www.detroitbar.com. Tues., 9 p.m. $10; also at the Glass House, 200 W. Second St., Pomona, (909) 865-3802; www.theglasshouse.us. Wed., 7 p.m. $13.