Seely, an unusual band out of Atlanta, has issued a very strong new album called Winter Birds . If this were the VH1 special, Winter Birds would have the band on the way up, about to hit it big, before the addictions and recriminations.
It’s hard to say just what kind of music Seely plays. They have that groovy swinging feeling you get from European bands like Cornershop, Stereolab and Portishead, and there are also definite touches of 1970’s art rock (a little Pink Floyd, some early Steely Dan), yet the band has a definite indie vibe, meaning the music sounds homemade, like it’s played by actual human beings in the same room with one another.
But aside from getting across what this band sounds like, the influences don’t really matter. The members of Seely-two women and two men, on the basic rock-and-roll instruments of electric guitars, bass, drums, keyboards and synthesizers-have managed to come up with their own thing.
A highlight of Winter Birds comes at the end of the song called “Planes Circle, Do,” with the band just chugging along in support of a distorted, repetitive synthesizer riff. It’s a mystery why this passage works so well. There’s nothing particularly amazing about the performance here, except that it sounds just right and makes your body hairs stand up and puts strange thoughts into your head.
The album’s closing song, “Sandy,” provides another kind of musical thrill. This song, an expertly made torch ballad sung in the breathy voice of its writer, Joy Waters, could be part of Rosemary Clooney’s repertoire tomorrow. And yet there’s nothing that feels retro about it.
Any complaints? Well, the lyrics are vague here and there, and not in a good way. Seely, an unusually dignified band, is a welcome antidote to the pop cultural vulgarity that’s out there, but that’s not really an excuse for having a song with the words “a decade of angels” repeated over and over again. “Decade” is a word best left to critics or the writers of VH1 specials, and angels have been done to death by now. Elsewhere, the word “stability”-not something you like to hear in a song lyric-oh so briefly undermines a melodic song called “Altamaha.”
One great thing: Lead guitarist Lori Scacco found an old Fender Rhodes keyboard in the band’s rehearsal space and decided to use it in the recording of Winter Birds . That instrument-a staple on such 70’s fare as Peter Frampton’s Frampton Comes Alive , the Atlanta Rhythm Section’s “So Into You” and countless bad fusion albums-brings a warmth to the album and undercuts the fussy, controlled quality that could be Seely’s only weakness. There’s something a little cheap about a Fender Rhodes, a little tacky, so it’s nice to have it here on Winter Birds , which is almost tasteful to a fault.
The band was formed in 1993 by two Georgia Tech architecture school graduates-Steven Satterfield, a guitarist-singer-songwriter, and Ms. Scacco. On drums is Eric Taylor, who plays beautifully in a matter-of-fact way. Ms. Waters joined on bass and vocals in 1995. Soon Seely found itself the only American act on the British Too Pure record label (home to Stereolab). Now that deal is dead and they’re on the independent New York label Koch Records.
Winter Birds is Seely’s fourth album. It is loaded with cool sounds, catchy melodies and expert playing. Best of all, there’s a freshness and vitality to it. In a time when so much of pop music is looking backward, this is something new.