LAS VEGAS, Nev. — “As long as you like your music, it’s cool.”
Alex Brown Church is talking about the lack of self-consciousness discernible on his band Sea Wolf’s latest record of variegated indie folk, “Old World Romance.”
Actually, “band” is a bit of a misnomer: Sea Wolf is essentially Church, who writes all the songs and recorded “Romance” himself, along with assorted musicians he brings in to play on albums and tours.
Mostly, Sea Wolf is the product of a singular vision.
“You can only seek to please yourself, and then, hopefully, other people will like that too,” Church says. “Unless you’re a pop songwriter. Which I’m not.”
No, but there is an immediacy, an instantaneous quality to his songs that’s not wholly removed from good pop songwriting.
On “Romance,” Sea Wolf’s third record, the songs are intricately arranged in places, but done so in the service of a sweeping, full-bodied sound that underscores how delicately assembled they are by highlighting all the little details — a xylophone embellishment here, a cello flourish there.
Plenty of folk-oriented records sound threadbare. Deliberately bare-bones. As unadorned as the emotions of the singer giving them voice.
But “Old World Romance” is more robust and lived in.
It’s one of those records that feels big and small simultaneously.
In a plaintive, cotton-soft, yet resonant voice, Church sings of loves both lost and found in alternately haunting and heartfelt tones.
The album is flush with nature allusions — a motif in Church’s repertoire.
“I believe in springtime / I believe in dead leaves in the wind,” Church sings on “Priscilla,” using the changing of the seasons as a metaphor for a relationship’s beginning and ending, while “Kasper” sounds as if it could have been penned by a meteorologist (“I think the sky is gonna clear / Because the hills turn green as summer nears / But a lightning storm, a lightning storm / Can even happen when the air is warm”).
Church attributes this connection to nature to growing up on a four-acre spread outside the small hamlet of Columbia, Calif., a former Gold Rush boomtown in the Sierra Nevada foothills where his family lived until he was 9 years old.
“My early childhood was filled with river rafting trips, fishing, backpacking, horseback riding, camping and all that,” Church says. “I come from a family that’s very appreciative of the outdoors, so for me, when I first started Sea Wolf, talking about the natural element was, in a way, me kind of reconnecting to my roots. Also, I was just interested in really painting a picture in peoples’ minds, and I feel like natural imagery has a distinct feeling to it.”
Detailed, striking imagery is prominent in Church’s songs.
Clearly, he’s a visually oriented person, and a number of his songs unfold like a sequence of scenes from a movie.
Turns out, this may not be coincidence: Before embarking on a career in music, Church went to film school at New York University.
“Someone once asked me, ‘Do you see your songs?’ And I was like, ‘Well, yeah. Isn’t it obvious?’” he says. “I’m just kind of writing down what I’m seeing in my mind’s eye. Even the music and the way that I arrange songs and structures, I kind of have this weird visual way that I see them in my mind.”
Not that he’s always seen them to begin with.
“There was no music family and there were no artists in my family. It took me a long time to sort of realize that this was something that I could do, that it was even a possibility for me,” he says. “The path to becoming a musician was definitely long,” he adds, a journey still far from complete.
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Jason Bracelin is an entertainment writer for the Las Vegas (NV) Review-Journal. Contact him at JBracelin@reviewjournal.com