FIRST IMPRESSIONS Sterling, pictured here with a furry friend, recorded much of 'Shifting Seas' himself.
The order of operations used to be you played a bunch of shows, then you released an album. Now it's often the other way around. When the English Breakfast played Slainte last weekend, it was their Portland live debut. Yet their debut album, Shifting Seas, has been marinating on Bandcamp since March 1 — a 15-track affair, no less.
Largely the brainchild of Ira Sterling, who recorded much of the album by himself, with drums from Bill Mead and mandolin by Evan Chase, the English Breakfast has jelled into a five-piece, swapping in the multi-talented Evan Casas on drums, plus bassist Sam Higgins (with Chase, they also make up Silent Sam and the Evans) and Joe Siviski, who dabbles with keys and otherwise.
If they can consistently pull off what Sterling's captured digitally, it ought to be pretty interesting. At its best, as with the opening "To the Spring," Shifting Seas can deliver the skittering energy of Radiohead's recent work, forward-leaning and desperate. There are layers to unpack, too, with toy-like percussion used as foundation for a song with hard-charging guitars and plenty of digital wash in the finish, so that you can't tell if it's coming from the vocals or keyboards.
"Rise and Shine" has it, too, with a shrill whistle in the right channel, and active bass, and vocals like a guy mimicking a cartoon vampire. Then we get classic-rock solos on different guitars in the left and right channel and in harmony with one another. Suddenly, though, it's all over at 1:31. Is this a song or an idea for a song?
Much more fully realized is "We'll Make Good Compost," another strong tune that makes you care about the answers to questions like "who's we?" and "for whom?" As is a trait of the album, the electric guitar tone here is excellent, crisp, and immediate, and the recurring insistence in the title isn't the only thing that might remind you of Perry Farrell's prediction that we'd make great pets.
It's an eclectic album, though, and there are times when you'd be forgiven for wondering if, to use an English phrase, Sterling is taking the piss. "Better Plan" has nice phrasing in the guitar and some light cymbal work before going full-on pop rock, like the Kinks with all the dials turned to 11 and a recorder melody line that demands attention. There's so much going on it's hard to know what to listen for.
Same with the title track, where there's egg shaker, tambourine, drumming with wild abandon from Mead, and Sterling's heavily distorted vocals that you can barely make out through the guitar wash. But scratch that — here comes a pretty mandolin part and a Casio keyboard line. And because all of the instruments are mixed to give them dimension, it's like musical chairs deciding what to focus on.
There's definitely a prog element here, too, like Nursery Crime-era Genesis in "Hand to Wing," what with the dramatic vocals that lead to something more closely mic'd and full of mouth noises.