Denali’s lead singer, Maura Davis, has an extraordinary voice. When I first heard it live a couple of weeks ago (Denali recently opened for Clinic in New York), I felt overwhelmed, caught up, spent. I wanted both to take it all in, in a lifesaving breath, and to let all of it go, in a heavy, soul-cleansing sob. Recorded, the experience is no different. Both endlessly complex and absolutely simple, her supple voice forms the emotional and musical core of Denali’s sound, rendering every song a shock and a blessing. Each note she sings is a glass rose that shimmers with a dangerous, fragile beauty, the kind that might shatter into a thousand pieces and pierce your heart.
And while we’re speaking of hearts, Maura’s is a heavy one. On Denali’s self-titled debut, Maura’s voice serves to highlight the entrenched sorrow and quiet rage of her lyrics (she wrote them for all the songs). Minimalist song titles like "Prozac", "Relief", and "Time Away" give clues that hers is a lot wrought with to-the-point reflection, in the way that the darker emotions can be articulate and acute. And so Denali’s songs both set a mood and perpetuate it, a soundtrack for introspection that drives you deeper into your own subconscious.
Denali are a four piece from Richmond, VA, composed of Maura Davis, her brother Keely on bass, drummer Jonathan Fuller and guitarist Cam DiNunzio. (Keely and Jonathan are also members of Engine Down, another Richmond band.) Already garnering their fair share of buzz before their LP even hit the shelves, they’re currently odd darlings on Jade Tree Records, a label known for its signature brand of both noisy and emo punk-pop. Denali depart from these trappings with an emotionally charged but not desperate sound, a mix between fuzzed-out dream pop and zoned-out ambient, like the lovechild of Portishead and Siamese Dream era Smashing Pumpkins. Their songs are both nebulous and gravitational, anchored by dark chord progressions, as Maura’s singing flies, gossamer, above the chaos.
The pensive nature of the album is apparent from its first moments, as almost unintelligible whispers break into gentle, distorted guitar notes on the album’s opener, "French Mistake". Once Maura begins singing (sounding unmistakably like Beth Gibbons from Portishead) the focus shifts, being as much about the effect of her shimmery soprano as it is about what she’s saying. Her words mimic the direct simplicity of the most therapeutic poetry: "Done the last real life/ Beside it’s hard to see/ The dotted line leaves space for you". By the chorus, the blustering guitars and droney bass erupt and command attention, as Maura wails with the power of a pop princess and the shadowy soul of a dance floor diva. "Now I’m feeling something tonight", she sings, notes expansive and clear.
Denali mainly follows two lines: the first demonstrated in "French Mistake", the second shown off in the following track, "You File". Faster in pace and more demanding in content, the track rustles and kicks, with reverberating guitars and another authoritative chorus. "Soon you’ll be much easier to capture", she sings, with an incensed determination not unlike Debbie Harry’s in "One Way or Another". The quickest and perhaps most single-worthy track on the album, the song showcases the band’s handiness with funkier, more syncopated drum-bass hand offs to spice up their dirges. Other tricks come out in "Relief", one of two tracks produced by Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse. (Alan Weatherhead, also of Sparklehorse, produced the rest of the album.) Opening with digitized drumbeats that agitate and then break into synthesizer and eventually organ, the vocals are sparse but flattering, emphasizing long, sailing notes.
While Denali have a definite comfort zone, there are few surprises on the ten-song collection, the beauty of the album is how easily songs melt into one another, rising and falling where they should, each one ending with a gentle dismount. The album itself closes with as much in "Where I Landed", a sample-laced slow number. Maura’s vocals are especially crystalline here, over the misty combo of Rhodes piano, bass, synth, guitar and drums. Unlike other songs, it waits until its last moments to build: Keely and Maura harmonize as the music topples over itself to balloon into a giant, overpowering swell. The intensity breaks as the song winds to a close, with Maura singing by herself over the slight rustle of drum and organ. "Why must I have you around here", she sings, repeating lines from the songs beginning. "I can’t forget every sound I fear".
In truth, Denali have captured a sound to cherish.