Forty Years to Find a Voice
British all-bass trio Rothko set the indie world on fire with their debut, A Negative for Francis, in 1999. Virtually an all-bass recording, Negative showcased a new sonic architecture in the indie world and offered all the punters a chance to hear not only the instrument in a different context, but also the notion of “song.” Rothko creates short, yet wondrously expansive lyrical melodies that extend harmonic ranges of simple tonal architecture and give them new dimensions to float, swoop, whisper, and lie in. On Forty Years to Find a Voice, the band stretches out with mixed results. Using Simon Tilbury’s vocals and winds as well as reeds and brass — albeit very selectively — Rothko do create alternate melodic frames but lose their quiet power in the process. It’s not that songs like “Sky Blue Glow,” with its mutated trumpet phrasing cascading over the top of the basses, isn’t compelling, because it is. It’s more that the horn is a distraction. Rothko’s music up until now, anyway, has been about intent focus and the creation of restrained harmonic tensions that create powerful emotional dreamscapes for the listener. The same goes for “Beatharian,” with Tilbury, his vocal, as soft and pleasant as it is, shuffling along like a sane Syd Barrett, becomes an extraneous piece of baggage in a mix that doesn’t seem to want to accommodate it. Instead the record works best when Rothko lets the guard down (“Open” and “Us to Become Sound”) and allows the full flow of their unique approach to flower: heavily textured ambience and wispy backdrops offer the lead instruments a chance to sound pretty, if not beautiful, as they wind around their atmospheres and eventually become them. This isn’t a bad record by any stretch and is worth owning by anyone interested in the band; it’s just an ambition that, as lovely as it is, narrowly misses the mark.