While making The Pixies’ Doolittle, Frank Black handed producer Gil Norton a record-store copy of Buddy Holly’s Greatest Hits, almost every song of which is under two minutes, and sputtered “If it’s good enough for Buddy Holly…” Proponents of brevity have battled those of epic song craft for as long as rock ‘n’ roll has been around. For every champion of Pink Floyd’s bombastic The Wall, a hero will rally behind The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks. The debate will continue ad infinitum, because ultimately there is no right answer. But there are certain songs, certain albums, which demand a specific length. They have to be under two minutes to pop. These albums demand a distinct, direct flow for the best tracks to flourish. In excising a number of songs and adding a closing title track, Heliotropes have made A Constant Sea, their already solid 2013 release, even better with its recent vinyl reissue.
Since their inception 4 short years ago, Heliotropes have trafficked in an authoritative, idiosyncratic brand of fuzz-rock. Jessica Numsuwankijkul’s and Amber Myers’ frequent low harmonies often call to mind a demented girl group. A Ronettes backed not by Phil Specter’s wall of sound, but instead by a brutal expanse of fuzzed-out guitars. It makes for an interesting combination; the vicious breadth of the music is offset by the intimate way in which the voices converge. Throw in the occasional Mazzy Star-crossed ballad and some unobtrusive psych-rock production flourishes, and you’re left with a band whose sound amounts to much more than the sum of their influences. However, while their songwriting pattern is distinct, it is limiting by nature. There are only so many ways to combine the four building blocks of rock ‘n’ roll, and when your aesthetic is so idiosyncratically defined, the palette is further limited. Still, because it never overstays its welcome, or remains on one sound for too long, the shortened re-release of A Constant Sea is an ideal platform for Heliotropes’ distinct flavor of doom.
38 minutes and 18 seconds is not much time at all. It’s shorter than your average episode of The Mentalist by at least four minutes, but it’s the perfect amount of time for the get-in, get-off, get-out quality that A Constant Sea thrives on. In the spirit of such concision (and considering how extended my opening remarks were in this review), I will adopt the same mentality in my assessment from this point forward and give you only the essentials.
The combo album-opening assault of “Early in the Morning” and “Psalms” is impressive, but its monolithic one-two is all the more imposing for the soft-landing side jab “Everyone Else” that follows. The spacey middle trio of songs – kicking off with the old school drone of “Good & Evil,” followed up with the classic rock swagger of “Ribbons,” and finishing with the epic doom expansion of “Quatto” – is ideally sequenced, coming to a head in the record’s heaviest lyrical couplet: “One of these days I’m going to jump right out of my skin / And one of these days I’m going to jump right back in,” and the doom guitar assault that follows. In “Awake,” and “Christine,” Heliotropes showcase a mellifluous side only hinted at in earlier tracks, functioning in tandem as an ideal come-down from the peak of the middle third of the album. The 6/8 haze of gorgeous “Christine” fades well into “A Constant Sea,” a starry-eyed, haunting piano number, which ends in a soft flurry of orchestral noise and feedback, bringing the album to a close with a contented sigh.
And there you have it, nine tracks and nine examples of how brevity and sequencing bring out the best in any album. In the end, Buddy Holly’s songs weren’t great because they were short, they were short because they contained only the essential elements of a great song. The vinyl release of A Constant Sea contains only the essential tracks of a near perfectly-sequenced album.