by Chad Jewett
For the past few years Prawn have been emo’s finest landscape artists. Throughout 2012 and 2013 the band released EPs, singles, and 7″ sides, all of which arrived like the careful work of gifted spatial thinkers. At times one could listen to 2012’s Ships and imagine its demos drawn on graph paper – such was both its precision and its occasionally too-mannered formalism. Now, with the truly special Kingfisher, the quintet is swiftly becoming one of the genre’s most kinetic animators, taking all that rich color and setting it in motion. Even consider the album’s cover — a gorgeously stylized rendering of a bird in flight. One used to appreciate Prawn for its layers; now we find the band holding a stack of pages and fanning through them, making all that beauty move. Kingfisher, at its rich best, is at once a headphone album and a pop tour de force. This means that songs like “Scud Running” spend their requisite time circling in crystalline exactness (the sort of chiming guitar exercises that once constituted whole tracks for Prawn) — right up until the moment they bloom into honest-to-goodness songs. You can simultaneously feel yourself being moved by each bright chorus and admire the brush strokes as they go streaking past. It’s as though the band has finally found a collection of songs, narratives, ideas, emotions worthy of their deft, thoughtful touch. The result is illuminating and wholly exciting.
Indeed, when “Scud Running” finally breaks its own ringing Mobius loop, punctured by arcing strings and a rubbery, textured bass line, it comes as a relief. Tony Clark, whose voice has gradually moved to the front of Prawn’s sonic maximalism as his melodies have grown stronger (such was the case on both of Prawn’s excellent contributions to their recent split with Joie De Vivre), fills that sudden space with a muscular tunefulness, offering crisp counterpoint to the intricate webs that make up this band’s aesthetic. So often the criss-crossing guitars that define Prawn are here used as a net to catch Clark’s newfound tunefulness. When the song’s keening, agile chorus arrives those guitars slide and flash beneath Clark’s melody — “It’s a long way away” – as horns burst atop. If Prawn have always been builders, students of The Appleseed Cast who internalized that band’s gift for Jenga-block post-emo construction, then songs like “Scud Running” find the band building toward something, devoting their considerable studio instincts for something other than tangled guitar humidity. Where, before, this sort of sound might have tied itself in knots it now finds rarified air in those horns and that melody – Prawn have found the dramatic potential of opening everything up. The best moments of the album are defined by that sense of purpose.
“First as Tragedy, Second as Farce” is as fleet and nimble as anything the New Jersey quintet have produced, a bright, bounding pop song that sets its cascade of guitars over a beat that first sprints then tumbles, sinewy and expressive like an old Vagrant Records A-Side. Clark finds another salient hook – “My son I’m so scaaaared, it’s a subtle feeling” – this time haloed by harmonies and bookended by curling, climbing guitar figures. The song expands wider and wider, eventually ebbing into a hazy, winded bridge before lofting into a final chorus. The same holds for the shimmering, optimistic “Dialect Of” which substitutes massive sheets of chords for the band’s more familiar pointillism, settling into conversational verses that eventually inflate back into dense hooks. It’s a classicist song structure of As and Bs – the kind Prawn have either avoided or considered a square peg for their rounded post-rock. Yet now the band has begun embracing the ingenuity needed to make their nimble sense of craft work in structures defined by economy and narrative. Prawn have ostensibly set to carving out their subtle ambiance on moving surfaces, and made that taste for detail newly compelling in the process. There’s fascination in seeing what Prawn must do to make pop songs work for them.
Elsewhere, the band has embraced an entirely new, impressionist moodiness. “Prolonged Exposure” and “Old Souls” carry the dusted weariness of Brand New’s The Devil & God Are Raging Inside Me, their every sound arriving like painful echoes moving through sickly dense air. Almost the inverse of the bursting pop economy that characterizes most of the album, these quieter, more troubled songs succeed in giving new motivation for Prawn’s light touch. If most of Kingfisher models the band’s newfound ability to make its symphonic instincts work towards epiphanies and climaxes, then these more cerebral passages instead find the band experimenting with new levels of sheer gentleness: notes sound barely touched, giving these handful of songs a hung-over quality, an exaggerated exhaustedness. Where Clark largely reaches for the kinetic upper edges of his voice throughout Kingfisher he instead plumbs the warm bottom of his range here, his melody sifting through clenched teeth like light through the gap in a window shade.
Kingfisher’s finest song – and indeed, one of the best songs of this year – arrives in the album’s final movement. “Thalassa” offers a radiant triptych of the album’s various moods and motifs, warm, striking chords and ebullient brass cooking down to clouded, conversational verses and blooming back up into rich choruses. When the song dips into instrumental passages it is only to allow short, athletic melodies to dance then recede in open space. A horn section curls and flares around aerodynamic strums, lending the song an air of celebration, an almost tangible quality of arrival, as if Prawn themselves were just now realizing the full, poignant potential of their own attention to detail. “I’m glad you found clarity in ambiguity” Tony Clark sings, then positively shouts. The band could easily be singing to themselves, and indeed, for a band that has so often gotten a charge out of complicating its own sound into opacity, there is an undeniable thrill in hearing them build something so translucent, so summery in its palette of bronzed trumpets and sunlit chords. “Thalassa” is the album’s shortest song but also its clearest statement of purpose, its most thrillingly vivid passage of brilliant, Technicolor ingenuity. Kingfisher is exceptional for precisely these moments – when Prawn find poetry in motion.