The Cape May, unfortunately, have lived up to their name. Plagued by injuries at the worst possible moments (like right before going into the studio to record their previous album, Central City May Rise Again) and technological failures that have caused them to lose tons of recordings during the recording process, the band’s experiences seem all too similar to the famous shipwreck that their name pays homage to.
On Glass Mountain Roads, the band sounds like anything but a wreck, exuding a sharp, palpable atmosphere and expertly concocted lyrics. Vocalist and principal songwriter Clinton St. John at times feels like the old man out front of the country grocery store telling the old town legends to a group of interested children. Except they’re not feel good stories. This is the dark side of what happened up on Glass Mountain.
The album’s first track, “Spring Flight From the Land of Fire,” is spare, minimalist and chilling as vocalist Clinton St. John begins the story that will unfold throughout the rest of the record: “Roy came from the land ice/ the great cold city far below/ he flew towards the skyward flame/ to warm his face with fire/ so he could melt/ so he could shrink/ so he could sink.”
Patience is the keyword when it comes to listening to this album for the first time. Sparse keyboards are the background for St. John’s story on “Spider’s Heart Attack,” leading to a slow but effective climax. “Copper Tied” is six minutes long and sounds like something out of the sixties (you know, back when four minute instrumentals were prerequisites). The more you listen and the closer you pay attention, the more rewarding The Cape May is. It’s a bit like reading Dostoevsky… or perhaps in this case, the colloquially good natured yet ruthless Stephen King; you always know there’s something up St. John’s sleeve.
“Still Island” is the most chilling track on the album, with mournful strings backing the band as St. John sings with his blind-man-in-a-dark-room voice: “Victoria, came and she went/ a photograph/ she didn’t last/ we walked her/ through the red hills at dawn/ the snow-filled sky/ was a locust swarm/ she was cut like a ribbon/ she was cold.” And then: “We took her body down to where the sea meets the ground.” The dreamlike quality of the music continues on “Catch Your Words,” which consists only of acoustic guitar and harmonica.
The band knows works minimalism to their advantage, but the only shortcoming here is partially due to their strength; the entire album bleeds together a bit like a musical run-on sentence. Granted, it’s a very, very good song, but a little more instrumental variation would have helped. The album closer, “A Butcher’s Son,” finishes the story tragically – sounding like someone running from a murderer or the plague. (“Saul was begging please/ spare me, oh black death/ I’m not ready yet!”)
Lyrically and vocally, this is a brilliant record that reminded me in some ways of early mewithoutYou (minus the yelling) or even Explosions in the Sky. Once the band finds a way to present their stories with a little more sonic diversity, there’s no telling what they’ll do. And I’m not advocating leaving their minimalist tendencies at all – that’s part of the allure. If you like literary experimental/art rock then check out The Cape May.