Timber Timbre’s brand of freak folk has always put an emphasis on the ‘freak’, not solely in their use of psychedelic stylings, but in their gothic aesthetic that evokes the dingiest and grittiest side of their pastoral themes. The Canadian band’s downtrodden, ragged Americana accompanies the dreary rusticity of frontman Taylor Kirk’s bleak lyricism, creating images of bucolic landscapes, just to have them shrouded in a darkness that is reflective of the internal struggles of the songs’ narrators and characters. Upon the unveiling of Sewer Blues, the lead single released in promotion of Timber Timbre’s newest album, Sincerely, Future Pollution, many fans were struck by the shift towards a more electronic sound, but the sonic alterations weren’t the only significant changes made to the group’s style. Just as the band’s music had become more synthetic, so too had Kirk’s imagery. Sincerely, Future Pollution replaces the usual rural environment of Timber Timbre’s aesthetic for an urban one — as is clear from the grainy cityscape depicted on the album cover — swapping swamps for sewers and canyons for cathedrals. As is implied in the record’s title, the folksters continue to pursue the usual nocturnal mood conveyed on their past material, with the dark lyrical themes looming over the bright synth melodies like pollution over bright city lights. This being said, although the symbolism evoked in Kirk’s lyrics is as gloomy and afflicted as ever, Timber Timbre seem to be attempting to reflect this on a sonic level, but the extent to which they are successful in doing so is relatively limited. In fact, compared to previous albums in the outfit’s discography, Sincerely, Future Pollution is oddly colourful at times, but it doesn’t necessarily seem as if this is the band’s intention, nor does it particularly play to the strengths of the project’s themes at large. Also, given that Timber Timbre’s approach to composing has often been somewhat minimal, the more vibrant moments on this record come across as if they are attempting to fill the space left by the band’s usual, sparse songwriting, which is ultimately not wholly effective, or even necessary, for that matter. At face value, there’s a lot to be enjoyed in the dark demeanour and post-industrial façade presented on Sincerely, Future Pollution, but beneath the surface of these squalid city streets, Timber Timbre seem to be experiencing some growing pains between the leap from the rural ruin of Hot Dreams to the urban waste of their latest effort.
Sincerely, Future Pollution opens with Velvet Gloves & Spit, a track that features a more successful application of the brighter and more synthetic-driven instrumentation that recurs across much of the album, and a song in which Timber Timbre clearly wear their influences on their sleeves, with the name of the song itself being an eponym of a Neil Diamond record from 1968. The cut’s church organ, sluggish, marching beat and rhythmic, industrial clangours are made to sound oddly uplifting when placed against the dainty synth leads and clicky, duelling guitars. Similarly, despite Kirk’s anguished recollections of departing with a lover, as he evokes imagery of a “haunted hotel room” and a “two-bit manchild”, his vocal delivery retains the gentle, hopeful resolve of Nick Cave’s singing style, as do the settlements he reaches in his lyrics. In fact, the entire song structure is reminiscent of some of the Australian singer-songwriter’s material, and if the droning chords that follow the vocal pattern were played with a piano, rather than synths and organs, Velvet Gloves & Spit would potentially fit in nicely on an album like The Boatman’s Call. If anything, the track’s main points of criticism would have to be that, firstly, the Nick Cave influence is a bit too potent and, secondly, on a structural level, Velvet Gloves & Spit essentially follows Timber Timbre’s usual songwriting blueprint to the letter, so the instrumental changes come across as superficial attempts at recycling this formula, whilst trying to make it sound fresh in the process.
The dynamic electronic arrangements of the opening track follow over onto the second song on the album, Grifting, but not quite with the same amount of potency, rather it arguably epitomises the somewhat clumsy clashing of Kirk’s moody vocal performances with the more lively instrumentals that feature across Sincerely, Future Pollution. Admittedly, the song impressed me upon its introduction, but almost because I forgot I was listening to a track from a Timber Timbre album. Following a bouncy drum fill that is mixed with a psychedelic-sounding phasing effect, the song opens with some groaning, off-kilter synth melodies and a clavinet groove that could have been pulled directly from a 70s funk song, and the band does an admirably good job of orchestrating this funky instrumental arrangement. Then, however, Kirk’s vocals come in and it transpires that this is, in fact, a Timber Timbre song. The frontman seemingly tries to maintain his usual, gruff inflection, whilst also attempting to make his delivery more animated as to suit the instrumental. Not only do these two completely opposing vocal styles collide in a rather ugly fashion, but, in focussing largely on accommodating his performance to the arrangement, Kirk also seems to neglect the melodic side of his vocal part, with his singing, as a result, being rather monotone, with the occasional flare of melody at the end of a phrase. Ultimately, the drastic stylistic changes on tracks such as Grifting, as well as the perfunctory reapplication of Timber Timbre’s pre-established compositional formula to needlessly synthesized arrangements on songs like Velvet Gloves & Spit and Moment, are questionable at best, and insinuate an attempted reinvention of the band’s sound that reaches no deeper than surface level.
Undoubtedly, the best moments from Sincerely, Future Pollution are those songs that adhere to the stylistic and aesthetic fundamentals that made Timber Timbre’s previous material so strong, whilst incorporating touches of synthetic embellishments, not merely for the sake of doing so, but as a means of genuinely adding something of substance to the composition that it would otherwise lack. Take the brooding, electronic bass line of Sewer Blues, for instance, which is paired with a lumbering drum beat and some sharp, shimmering guitar chords, all of which come together to craft the type of ominous atmosphere that perfectly complements Kirk’s nocturnal portrayals of manufactured ruin. Indeed, the rooms filled with fog, vapour, perfume and cigarette smoke depicted in the singer’s lyrics are palpable in the track’s dark timbre, which is almost sensual in its slow-moving slickness. The title track is much more upfront and abrasive in its bleak nature, with the smooth bass groove that opens the cut being interrupted by bursts of blaring electronic drones and rhythmic clatter, which eventually give way to a haunting synth lead that looms over the industrial grumbling of various electronics. Following the introduction of a single, funereal organ chord, Kirk’s vocals appear, perhaps murkier than ever before, which is fitting as he details the “smoke rainbow” left by pollution. The textures of eerie guitar lines, groaning drones and cutting electronics are balanced impressively well, swamping the mix in a gloomy atmosphere without completely overwhelming the listener. Moments such as these demonstrate that the changes made by the band on Sincerely, Future Pollution aren’t entirely ham-fisted, and could prove to be very effective if done correctly.
Having secured several fantastic albums under their belts, it only makes sense that Timber Timbre would choose to experiment with their style at this point in their career, but Sincerely, Future Pollution only scratches the surface of the sound that the band seems to be pursuing. For the most part, it’s the tracks that only stray slightly from the group’s usual approach to songwriting that effectively integrate the electronic stylings with which Timber Timbre experiment on this new record, and they most definitely don’t have the experience to pull off something like the funk crossover of Grifting. Thematically speaking, the choice to reflect the shift of timbre towards more synthetic-centred arrangements in the urbanisation of Kirk’s lyrical imagery is an effective one that conveys a level of focus and vision that isn’t as often exhibited in the somewhat cursory instrumental changes. As such, the overall aesthetic of Sincerely, Future Pollution contributes a significant portion to my general enjoyment of the record, but Timber Timbre nevertheless display a need for genuine substance and depth to these stylistic shifts if they are to properly actualise the sound they are striving for here.
The Vinyl Verdict: 6.5/10