Whistle Peak – Half Asleep Upon Echo FallsPosted by Adrian MacDonald
The methodical tempos plunked out with xylophones and ukuleles of Whistle Peak–the careful, quiet delivery and general sense of slow, dreamy playfulness — recalls the distinctive sound of a wind-up music box. Mechanical moving parts that click and strike in repetitive movements, hand-cranked performers driven by a flock of innocently fascinated children.
It isn’t clear from listening to their second full-length, Half Asleep Upon Echo Falls, whether Whistle Peak has any special ambitions to make a conceptual statement with their sound. In truth, the toy instruments idea was more pronounced on their 2008 self-titled album, which offers strange between-song interludes of wheezing organ and primitive percussion. The video for that album’s “Gold Teeth” consists of black and white footage featuring trained monkeys playing banjos and tambourines, and operating a hand cranked movie camera. The film is non-subtly cut with shots of the band banging on instruments in monkey masks. Whistle Peak doesn’t take themselves too seriously — or else at some level, it may be that they prefer to think of themselves in egalitarian terms, each member the same common denominator as the next.
Half Asleep doesn’t depart drastically from that first release in form and tone, each song unfolds in repetitive, interlocking string and percussion riffs allowing space for a quiet palette of background texture (such as the sound of a whistling kettle or an electronic chorus like night insects). The lyrics, while not timeless poetry, have a storytelling quality to them, feeling like whispered secrets.
The music box notion is ever-present, occasionally begging an unfavorable comparison to carnivalesque Tom Waits without the accompanying lyrical originality. On “Hurry Hurry,” the band goes into scary clown territory, mired in a tired avant-garde theater cliche. But with “Elephants” the circus milieu seems to redeem itself, recalling the psychedelic part of Dumbo with fun moments of xylophone chaos.
More often than not, Half Asleep Upon Echo Falls is closer to evoking a child’s room at bedtime, due to the ambient electronic sound Whistle Peak introduce to their existing aesthetic. The subject of dreams figures prominently, underscoring the sense of drifting along on inexorable rhythms. “Sleepy Pants” combines a lullaby instrumental with indecisive lyrics concerning day and night. Among the album’s most memorable tracks is “Sailor,” crescendoing in an ambient wash that manages to mimic the sound of the ocean.
What makes the whole thing work is Whistle Peak’s grasp of pop sensibility (whatever the conceptual approach may be toward their craft). The songs on Half Asleep never fail to incorporate satisfying tonal shifts and sing-along chorus structures, easily absorbed as light-hearted indie pop with anachronistic style. The mood is overwhelmingly bittersweet, but pleasant. The songs travel a wide range in narration and atmosphere. The album holds up surprisingly well to repeated listens as its thoughtfulness sinks in. The metaphors Whistle Peak chooses to truck in are more fertile than they might seem, resulting in dream stories that encompass enough ambiguity to read as both childlike innocence and adult reflection.