Before Portishead ever released a record, key members Geoff Barrow and Beth Gibbons made a short film called To Kill A Dead Man, for which they also recorded the soundtrack. This film ultimately got the attention of some record execs and, before long, Barrow and Gibbons were in the studio, recording their Mercury Prize-winning debut, Dummy. This seemingly strange beginning to a band’s career is not surprising, given the cinematic nature of Portishead’s music. It wouldn’t be surprising if Richmond, Virginia’s Denali also had a movie or two up their sleeves. The music on their Jade Tree debut, stunning in its rich textures and dramatic dynamics, evokes haunting scenes of beauty and melancholy. Indeed, Denali is film for the ears.
“Cold, remotely desolate, permanent.” These are the characteristics that Denali the band feels their music has in common with their namesake mountain (that’s Mount McKinley for those who don’t speak Athapascan), and I agree completely, though the “cold” of Denali is far different from the “cold” of, say, Kraftwerk.
Fifty percent of this quartet (bassist Keeley Davis and drummer Jonathan Fuller) is moonlighting from the emotive Engine Down, but given the strength of this record, it would not be surprising to see Davis and Fuller turn their full attention to the Denali project. Fuller’s effects-drenched drums and Davis’s snaky baselines create grooves on each track that would not be out of place on a Portishead or Massive Attack record. These grooves are sometimes dirge-like and sometimes downright rump-shakin’. Guitarist Cam Dinunzio (also moonlighting from Lazycain) supplies soaring and searing guitar lines that chime like a glockenspiel one moment and squeal like Jimi’s Flame-O-Caster the next. The multiple layers of sound that make this record the gorgeous sound collage that it is are given cohesion and, well, sparkle through the engineering and production work of Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous and Sparklehorse collaborator Alan Weatherhead.
The real star here, however, is Davis’s little sister, Maura Davis, whose fallen angel voice is reminiscent of Ms. Gibbons’s signature 3 a.m. tone. Davis, a classically trained vocalist, has chosen to turn her training inside out (“If my voice teacher heard me today, she’d kill me,” says Davis) to develop a sound that is so powerful and so stunning in its breadth that you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it. In fact, I’ll admit that I found myself hopelessly in love after my first full listen through Denali. From the strident, sexy wail of “French Mistake” to the soft, vulnerable and sexy whisper of “Function”, to the groovy and, by the way, sexy crooning of “You File”, Davis demonstrates a power and versatility that is positively intoxicating. But that’s not all. Davis is no one-trick pony, and she’s certainly no one’s puppet. All the cadavre exquis words she sings are her own, and she accompanies herself on electric rhythm guitar as well.
Denali is that rarest of breeds in today’s music business: a record on which all tracks are equally strong and equally indispensable. Seriously, you can drop the needle anywhere on this platter and here the awesome power and beauty of Denali. It’s that good. Once you shake the Portishead frame of reference, you’ll start to notice the true originality of this band. Denali is likely to find its audience with equal parts trip-hop fans, Fugazi fans, and Beth Orton fans. Diverse and eclectic, it hangs together as a whole thanks to an overarching musical and lyrical theme of loneliness, melancholy, and cynicism.
However, Denali are no self-pitying sadsacks. The sadness of Denali is full of power, passion, and hope. It’s the same sadness that makes people join the Peace Corps, become public servants, watch Bergman films or adopt children. It’s an ambitious sadness that turns aural phenomena into stark and stunning mental movies, in which the heroine triumphs against ugliness and wins the final victory for beauty and truth. Denali is sadness that makes the world a better place.