Or, the Whale
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Or, the Whale

San Francisco, California, United States | INDIE

San Francisco, California, United States | INDIE
Band Rock Americana

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"Music Feature August 2007"

San Francisco Bay Guardian Music Feature
August 15th 2007
Mates of down-home states
Riding a wave of love for Or, the Whale
BY TODD LAVOIE

I might as well just fess up and own it: as much as I love the concrete and anonymity of the city, I'll always remain a country boy at heart. I grew up in a town of 2,000 people, where everyone knew one another's business. Intimately. Moose in the backyard were a regular occurrence. Country music was everywhere. Potato-sack racing and the 4-H club played an integral part of my childhood, as odd as it is to contemplate such things over the din of traffic outside. And just as my hometown has grown and citified over the years since I ran from it screaming, so has my perception of it. Back in the day, I couldn't wait to leave. Now that I'm older, I overromanticize the hell out of that place. Show me a dirt road and just watch the sentimentality pour out of me.

Perhaps it's these feelings that first drew me to the down-home comforts and easygoing twang of local rural Americana raconteurs Or, the Whale.

Or perhaps it was their lush, Opry-fied harmonies or the fact that their recent self-released debut, Light Poles and Pines, surges with a sense of camaraderie and community that reminded me of small-town life. Whatever the reason, I was hooked, and soon enough I found myself sharing a picnic table at Zeitgeist with four members of the band, eager to learn more.

Named after the secondary title of Herman Melville's classic tale of struggle and strife Moby-Dick, Or, the Whale is — sticking with the zoological theme — still a mere calf. Because the bandmates sound like they've played together forever, it's a surprise to learn that the septet formed less than two years ago, partially through Craigslist ads. "Some of us were already friends," singer-percussionist Lindsay Garfield explains, "but a lot of us had never met before that ad. But here we are, like a family. We're very lucky."

Lucky us, while we're at it: Light Poles and Pines, recorded one year after those fortuitous e-mails, makes for a mighty impressive introduction. Recorded in two days, mostly using entire takes with few overdubs, the disc feels like an informal front-porch session between seasoned musicians who have shared endless miles on the road. How else to explain the confident looseness of stomping barn burner "Bound to Go Home," the hoedown ebullience of "Threads," the intuitive heartstring-tugging musicianship of "Rope Don't Break"?

Add to this the fact that the group has four lead vocalists — and the remaining members all sing backup — and it isn't much of a leap to imagine Or, the Whale as a modern-day incarnation of another gang of rural mythmakers, the Band. Before I can indulge in Robbie Robertson–<\d>Levon Helm comparisons, though, Garfield chuckles and sets me straight: "We're nowhere close to that yet! And we're definitely not session musicians." She adds, "We're certainly huge fans of the Band, though," as bassist-vocalist Justin Fantl jumps in: "We'll gladly take the suggestion, thanks."

No problem, and I'll stick by it. Here's why: over the course of 13 songs, Light Poles and Pines swings effortlessly between knee-clapping bluegrass, campfire country-gospel sing-alongs, straight-up classic Nashville tearjerkers, and probably a few other forms I'm forgetting. Yet taken together, they are a clear and cohesive expression of the back-to-our-roots ethos at work here, much like that of Robertson et al. Vocalist–<\d>guitarist–<\d>banjo player Alex Robins jokingly describes Or, the Whale's sound as "a big, delicious stew," and he's right. Hearty, rustic, nostalgia inducing — sounds like a stew to me.

How did they muster such fine home cooking? "With this album we wanted to create the feel of a live show, happy flubs and all," vocalist-guitarist Matt Sartain suggests.

"It's those little imperfections, which give it a real, honest feel, I think." Robins is quick to agree: "No one had veto power. If everybody else liked that I missed a note in a particular part of the song, it didn't matter that I wanted to do it over. We'd keep the flub anyway, and eventually I'd see that they were right."

It's this level of openness and mutual respect that may prove to be Or, the Whale's greatest asset. By the time this goes to print, the close-knit, fiercely DIY band will be wrapping up a 25-city coast-to-coast tour that it orchestrated itself — proof positive of the commitment the members share with one another and their cause. Garfield, Fantl, Robins, and Sartain — along with fellow members accordionist-organist-vocalist Julie Ann Thomasson and drummer-vocalist Jesse Hunt — will end their journey here in San Francisco, at the Great American Music Hall, deserving of a hero's welcome. "This tour — booking everything, promoting it all ourselves — it means everything to us," Garfield explains. "We're really proud of what we've done. This truly shows how much we mean to each other, and it's jus - San Francisco Bay Guardian


"Spotlight on Or, the Whale 2006"

By Katherine Hoffert

A reference to Moby Dick and a testament to the roots of what making music is all about, San Francisco seven-piece Or, the Whale, is kicking up dust along the West Coast and spreading the gospel of honest music. Writing songs with a country heart and a scope that encompasses the entire country, Or, the Whale’s sound embodies a friendly front-porch gathering, a rollicking jubilee, and a painful lament. From gospel to roots, Or, the Whale’s songs preserve a warm, organic feeling that transcends age and musical disposition.

Finding each other less than a year ago — through a Craigslist post with the headline “Want to Start a Sweet Country Rock Band” — Alex Robins (vocals, acoustic guitar, banjo), Matt Sartain (electric guitar, mandolin), Lindsey Garfield (vocals, guitar, percussion), Tessa Turner (slide guitar), Justin Fantl (bass), Jesse Hunt (drums), and Julie Ann Thomasson (keyboard, accordion, washboard) share an unrivaled compatibility, evident in their ability to write and perform together. “The biggest challenge is that we can never sound delicate,” Thomasson explains. It’s true; with seven people, no matter how slow or soft everyone plays, it still sounds loud. However, this loudness gives rise to the all-encompassing surge of sound that makes Or, the Whale so effective.

Seeing this band play live is touching, invigorating, and downright fun. “We’re very encouraging of each other on stage,” Robins says. “Tessa pats me on the back at least three times during a show.” The combination of purely heartfelt music and a very personable performance has the strength to make an entire crowd break into smile and dance. Armed with sincerity, an engaging demeanor and pure rocking energy, Or, the Whale can’t help but rile up a crowd to let loose and have a good time together.

“The cool thing is that there is so much room for error. With seven people, you can’t get caught up with doing everything perfectly — you need to abandon that,” Robins continues. “With smaller bands, I think people are prone to become control freaks.” “I play something slightly different every time,” says Thomasson, who just recently added the accordion to her onstage repertoire. “The songs are all still mutating. And it’s very freeing.” As the band keeps progressing together, so will the songs. Robins explains, “There is never really a finished point for any of them. We just need to let each song do what it’s going to do that night. Everyone knows when it comes together — that’s the best part.”

In late August, Or, the Whale released a 7-inch and headed up the coast for a 15-day-straight tour. “It was our first time playing for complete strangers,” Robins says. Often receiving encores as the opening band, and sharing bills with anyone from high school punk bands to Humboldt County’s Que La Chinga, Or, the Whale came to a realization in Oregon: “It’s harder to feel like it’s a great show when there are only six people in the audience — the other band and their two friends,” Robins says. “The show in Salem was our first all-ages show, and we played for a bunch of people that had probably never even seen a banjo before. There was a kid that came up to me afterwards, and told me in a hushed voice, "I usually like metal, but I was pretty into it."
Sartain adds, “It’s that primal, roots element that appealed to him, the 1-4-5 pattern you can’t help but react to.”
“All I know is that I’ll yell and scream for 100 people in Davis, and four people in Salem,” Robins says. “What I remember now is that one kid at every show whose eyes I caught.”

Back from tour, Or, the Whale are ready to record their album themselves in their practice space. “Recording is very limited, as far as capturing the live performance,” says Sartain, “but you can take your time.”“With recording, we can just leave the guitar out and concentrate on those small, delicate touches that we can’t do on stage,” Robins adds. At the end of the day, it’s their mutual love of music and like-minded approach to making it that fuels Or, the Whale. “We’ll be happy if our only success is not having to work other jobs, and just live off of doing this … even if we have to eat peanut butter,” Robins says. “The thing that makes me the happiest is being on stage with these six people. It makes a bad day go away.” - Performer Magazine, West Coast


"CD Review/ August 2007"

San Francisco’s Or, the Whale summon up a pleasant surprise on Light Poles and Pines, as if anything less could be expected from a band named after the Herman Melville novel—their niche is in a rather warm brand of country-rock. They have no qualms, for example, about name-dropping New Orleans for the sake of one of their good-natured, fuzzy choruses, even though they’re from California, or announcing “Gee-tar!” in the most Texan accent they can manage to cue a guitar solo in “Threads”. Light Poles is syrupy thick in rich harmonies and a yearning swoon that makes it impossible to ignore. What’s more, their eagerness to dabble in both their genres works to their advantage: the seven-member group eschew country’s ludicrous and irrelevant song titles, while their rock background enhances the application of their steely freight-train acoustic guitar chords and the drums contribute a straight, ever-pulsing beat. - Pop Matters


"Misc. Press- Good Morning America, USA Today, Yahoo Music, etc."

Oregon Public Broadcasting Blog
CD Review: Three remarkable albums to resurrect American folk music?
July 9, 2009 by Zaph Mann

Or~The Whale's second album ("Or, The Whale") opens with a sound that seems to have been lifted from a Fairport Convention album, then kicks back across the Atlantic into an American music more akin to Uncle Tupelo and early N.Young, then cuts back and it's old English again. The variations keep the album sounding fresh: Very unlike 1970's folk acts who managed one or two big anthem songs in otherwise overblown theme albums influenced by rock, Or~The Whale's one 'big-sound' track 'Black Rabbit' fits in with a set so good it already sound like a "best of" selection.

The lead vocals switch between four different band members with Alex Robbins prominent on half the tracks, however, from the outset it's the harmonies and backing vocals that sway the emotion: I'm struck by the tone of Lindsay Garfield - her backing vocal lifts the opener and she's gorgeous on her first lead vocal track "Never Coming Out" - that 'English' folk element seems to be down to her. Garfield is young and surely bound to a future as a solo artist in her own right. The second female vocalist Julie Ann Thomasson adds another dimension with her vocal leaning more towards the american tradition of razorred drawl within the refrain. The second male vocalist Matt Sartain started the group with Robbins through a Craigslist ad - just like the old music paper ads... but who could have predicted they would pick up such talent.

In the folk tradition I hope that Or~The Whale adopt the approach of the Watersons & McCarthys - staying supportive to each other's ventures while promotng the main function of folk - the voice and the telling of the people's story. Or~The Whale's publicity states that they 'have grown into something... neither country or rock', I can agree, it's not quite either/or, let's call it Transatlantic Folk and call it damned good too.

Mar. 26th 2008 Yahoo Music. 5 Under-The-Radar Albums You Need to Hear.

I was instantly intrigued by the band Or, The Whale because of my love for Melville's classic Moby Dick or, The Whale. I spent a good deal of time in New Bedford, Ma., the location of the fictitious Spouter Inn and Moby Dick is flat out my favorite book of all time.

The 7-member band Or, The Whale hail from San Francisco and have produced an imminently enjoyable record rooted in Americana. The musicianship, harmonies and melodies will instantly put a glide in your step. The production is clean and simple, and the album's rootsy sound is happy and upbeat. This music will make you want to gather your friends together and hitchhike across America -- If only America was as warm and beautiful as Light Poles And Pines.

USA Today Pop Candy Blog 7/6/07
There's a country-flavored band I'm digging called Or the Whale; hear Call and Response on MySpace.

Good Morning America Tues. April 13th, 2008

"Or, the Whale, one of San Francisco's Best Bands..."



- Good Morning America, USA Today, Yahoo Music,


"Critic's Choice for the Week June 2007"

When the Decemberists sang We are two mariners, our ship's sole survivors in this belly of a whale, they probably didn't realize it had anything to do with San Francisco septet Or, the Whale. Both groups douse contemporary chamber pop in an old-timey sepia bath, yet "The Mariner's Revenge Song" comes out reeking of such English-major pomposity that it renders Or, the Whale's countrified take positively charming. This holds true across the band's May debut, Light Poles and Pines, and is bound to continue at its Starry Plough gig. - East Bay Express


"CD of the Month July 2007"

CD OF THE MONTH



Or, the Whale - Light Poles and Pines
Produced by J.J. Wiesler and Or, the Whale
Recorded and mixed by J.J. Wiesler at Closer Recording in San Francisco, CA
Mastered by John Greenham at Area 51 Mastering in San Francisco, CA

Rooted in the golden hills and foggy mornings of Northern California, Light Poles and Pines resonates throughout with the excitement that comes from true collaboration. At its best, Or, the Whale is a textbook example of how to use a big group to its fullest potential. Songs like "Life and Death at Sea" and "Saint Bernard" draw out a full, substantial group sound with multiple vocalists and a wash of melody that feels like Arcade Fire by way of the Grand Ole Opry.

Slide guitar, bells, keys, bass, fingerpicked electric guitar, and male and female vocals play off one another without overpowering the listener or each other. It's rousing and heartfelt - the kind of sound to move a crowd.

Album opener "Call and Response" (which also appeared on last year's 7-inch) puts all seven band members to work in a rich, tense outpouring of feeling: "And all our lives / Were lost in vain / Now they've got more to fear than a hurricane." Written about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the song moves slower on the album than it usually does live, which allows its purpose to come through clearly and directly. The unaccompanied choral vocals at the end are the personification of unity itself.

Lead singer Alex Robins has a straightforward baritone that doesn't have to force a twang, and Lindsay Garfield has got a woman's voice - there's not a hint of Lolita flirt in her warm, honest tones. "Gonna Have To" pits their well-matched vocals against each other in a breaking-hearts duet between two lovers who sing the same lines without hearing each other. Like nearly all the songs on Light Poles and Pines, the lyrics lead somewhere worth going, and every instrument adds something worth having. (Self-released)

www.orthewhale.com

-Kjersti Egerdahl
- West Coast Performer Magazine


"Local Grooves 2007"

Local Grooves
Or, the Whale
BY TODD LAVOIE
Wednesday May 30, 2007
OR, THE WHALE

Light Poles and Pines

(Self-released)

The band name might come from the nearly murmured secondary title of Herman Melville's epic Moby-Dick, but there's nothing subordinate about the debut of local blue-highway ramblers Or, the Whale. Rather, Light Poles and Pines crackles with a confidence that is as mighty as that namesake mammal. And much like the famous opening line of the Melville classic ("Call me Ishmael"), these 13 songs make for an equally memorable introduction.

Brandishing four Grand Ole Opry–worthy vocalists — frequently harmonizing to thrilling effect — as well as three other accomplished musicians, Or, the Whale throw one hell of a barn dance. Still, the invitation does say "indie rockers welcome," so the album at times recalls M. Ward, particularly on the vapory transmissions of the Alex Robins–sung "Crack of a Smile," as well as Uncle Tupelo: witness the moonshine-sodden sing-along "Threads.



" Lindsay Garfield's Freakwateresque lament "Rope Don't Break" — accented by indigo purrs of pedal steel guitar — and the dysfunctional heartbreak of the Robins and Julie Ann Thomasson duet "Gonna Have To" provide additional highlights, while the Matt Sartain–led "Bound to Go Home" is a rompin', stompin' gospel hoedown that would have done Woody Guthrie proud.
OR, THE WHALE - San Francisco Bay Guardian


"Recent Discoveries 2007"

Light Poles and Pines is the excellent debut by San Francisco's Or, the Whale. At first listen I though this may be one of those alt-countryish things that is pleasant enough but that I could really take or leave. But turns out it's almost indescribably great, so I guess I'll take it. It sounds like the Carter Family, George Jones, CS&N, Neil Young, The Band, The Eagles, The Long Ryders, and the Jayhawks. Except it's completely original. It is impeccably sung and played with enough creative flourishes that you couldn't call it derivative. This is a pretty amazing record and my early frontrunner for album of the year. I guess maybe it isn't even really out yet, but it is available in downloadable form, especially on eMusic. - PurgeGeeks.com


"Or, the Whale Live Review 2006"

..they were energetic and genuine, tight when they needed to be and loose and loud at all the right times. there are seven members in the group, but it's not a case of quantity over quality. they play as a true band, simultaneously layering the music and giving each other room to make the songs work. the songs are well-structured and vocal harmonies abound, making for honest and compelling compositions that really engage the listener. some would say that they're a country band playing rock and roll and some would say they're a rock and roll band playing country. it doesn't really matter, because they embody the best aspects of both genres while avoiding the cliched trappings of either. -Ben Thorne - Instrumental Analysis


"Band of the Week 2007"

Normally, when a band emails me to ask me to write something about them, I listen to a track or two, then say a polite “Thank you very much and send them on their way. However, for San Francisco seven piece “Or, the Whale, one listen on their MySpace had me intrigued. Then another listen, and another… and soon I realised that I actually quite liked them – they’re not just another wannabe, cookie-cutter indie band.

Digging for some terms to describe them, I found their last.fm page that perfectly describes them: “gritty, driving indie rock epics, sweet folk lullabies, and boot-stompin traditional country songs”. They manage to avoid the usual cliches, instead heading towards the more respectable path, having elements of New Pornographers, Trespassers William, a hint of Bright Eyes, and Invisible-Band era Travis about them.

“Rope Don’t Break” is a typical haunting country and western song, however this is no bad thing: Lindsay Garfield’s voice is strong and memorable, yet isn’t grating or irritating. Gently, plodding along, it sounds like it should be right at home on a montage of travelling out of the desert in a film.

“Saint Bernard” is immediately accesible, with memorable guitars that drive the song along, giving it a feel of a camp-fire singalong, perfect for long summer evenings. The introduction sounds more or less exactly the same as Travis’ “Pipe Dreams”, but sounds completely different after like 20 seconds - showing off their musica prowess pretty quickly and adeptly.

Jangly “Call and Response” features a-capella sing alongs, and barn-dance style melodies that are in sharp contrast to the more down-beat tunes earlier on the record.

Intelligent, memorable, and different to all the other “and me!” bands out there, give Or, The Whale a chance this summer. - ThereGoesTheFear.com


Discography

2009 Or, the Whale (self-titled)
2007 Light Poles and Pines
2006 Life and Death at Sea, 7'' EP

Photos

Bio

Voices everywhere, caught again in the devil’s snare,” belts lead vocalist and guitarist Alex Robins of San Francisco-based Or, the Whale on the second song of the band’s newest album. The song, “Datura,” is a rollicking ode to the hallucinogenic properties of jimson weed, but could just as easily be a description of the band itself. The soaring vocal harmonies and Neil Young-inspired guitar riffs found on Or, the Whale’s self-titled sophomore album yield a fiendishly potent listening experience, which may even provoke your own hallucinations.

On the heels of 2007’s Light Poles and Pines (which featured the band’s debut single “Call and Response” and helped earn them a 2008 Hollywood Music Award for Best Americana/Roots Artist as well as a coveted spot on Radio & Records Top 100 Americana Artists of 2008), Or, the Whale cannot so easily be pinned down. Tracks like “Black Rabbit,” which features a gale-force chorus above electric feedback and pounding drums, play out as if in an effort to prove just how hard the band can rock. At other times, as on “Never Coming Out”—a paranoid and agoraphobic rail ride that explodes into a final a capella starburst—Or, the Whale showcases their ability to present a reflective, stripped-down arrangement (no small feat for a band with seven members). Likewise, the creeping “Keep Me Up” shows how Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter” might sound if re-imagined through the mournful wail of pedal steel.

Like any good San Francisco band, Or, the Whale partially owes its inception to the online bulletin board service Craigslist; at one point, Robins and Matt Sartain (guitar and vocals) posted an ad titled “Wanna Form a Sweet Country Rock Band?” and recruited fellow vocalist Lindsay Garfield from a listing she had written looking for a guitar player. From there, the three set about enlisting bandmates Julie Ann Thomasson on keyboards and vocals, Justin Fantl on bass, Jesse Hunt on drums, and later Tim Marcus on pedal steel guitar.

Four years later, after a live appearance on Good Morning America, attention in USA Today, Paste, Magnet, and Billboard magazines, sold-out engagements on both coasts, and shows with the likes of Fleet Foxes, Devil Makes Three, The Dodos, and Two Gallants, Or, The Whale has grown into something that is neither country nor rock, but exists somewhere in the space between the two.

And “space” is certainly the new name of the game for this band. After recording Light Poles and Pines in a single extended weekend, the band made sure to take their time with their new effort, meticulously arranging each song to allow room for each instrument to contribute in the most effective way possible. The result is an album with more complexity and shape, not to mention diversity and emotional impact.

Relax and enjoy the trip; Or, the Whale is a band that will rock you, make you dance, and maybe even inspire you to contribute to their amazing vocal pyrotechnics—voices everywhere, indeed.