What if the Dirty Projectors was led by Matt Berninger of The National?
San Fermin, the brainchild of songwriter/composer Ellis Ludwig-Leone, is a mix of baroque pop and indie-rock. In a story seemingly too hip to be true, Ludwig-Leone isolated himself in the Canadian woods after graduating from Yale. There, he composed the vast bulk of San Fermin on his own. When he got back to New York to record the album in studio, little changed of the original compositions. San Fermin; however, doesn't sound like it once existed only on paper -- it's an album that lives, breathes, and inhabits space. Already with one ballet score under his belt, Ludwig-Leone splashes his own brand of baroque and classical sensibilities all over indie rock. The result is an album that is exciting, original, and masterfully crafted.
Much musical ground is covered in Ludwig-Leone's first studio album. There's influences of baroque and classical music, but there's an equal presence of modern indie-rock. A wealth of instruments peek into the album at various points too: saxophones, trumpets, violins, pianos, drums, bass guitar, clarinets, electric guitar, and cellos. San Fermin sprawls to such a degree that its use of three vocalists doesn't feel appropriate -- it feels downright necessary. The male vocals are provided by Allen Tate, whose slow baritone feels a lot like Matt Berninger from The National, and the female voice parts are usually performed as a duet by Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig. The different voice tracks throughout the album function as different characters in an operatic story about loneliness, anxiety, and love.
Of course, none of this would be worth anything if the album was no good. And San Fermin isn't just good -- it's downright beautiful. The album is very carefully arranged, and what's most striking about it is not only how original it is, but how restrained it is. San Fermin often has multiple opposing melodies -- the album's lead single, "Sonsick", for example has the two female vocal tracks seemingly contradicting one another. However, these songs are scaled down enough so that San Fermin never sounds complicated or fussy; instead, all of the music here follows an intuitive sort of arrangement, and melodies and rhythms never subtract from the other. When the saxophones go nuts on "Crueler Kind" or "The Count", it feels right, like the song just couldn't work without it.
The exact moment where it becomes obvious that San Fermin will be something great occurs right at the 45-second mark of the first track. The song, "Renaissance!" starts simply enough with Allen Tate's baritone croon and a slight piano accompaniment. He's then joined by a quiet saxophone and strings, but at the 45-second mark, a female choir joins in abruptly and suddenly. It's a jarring moment upon the first listen, but it becomes obvious a few seconds into this change that Ludwig-Leone has a firm grasp on what makes music work. When the choir comes in, it elevates the song into something beautiful, and while the move is unconventional, it doesn't feel strange or unwarranted. After multiple listens to the record, this initial opening never fails to generate goosebumps. And importantly, it proves that this album, which could be pretty stuffy and heady, is one that can and will pull at your heart-strings.
San Fermin's wholly impressive debut has many musical reference points, but nothing that quite sums up what the album sounds like. There are moments that share musical space with St. Vincent & David Byrne's Love This Giant, The Dirty Projectors, The National, or Damon Albarn's Dr. Dee. To spend just a minute on Dr. Dee, Albarn's opera didn't work because it didn't know quite what it wanted to be. His album shifted between traditional opera, pastoral folk, and acoustic indie-rock, and the result alienated just about everybody. San Fermin, to contrast with this, feels like it knows exactly what kind of album it wants to be. When it changes tone or style, it does so within the context of what came before it -- it never feels schizophrenic or jumbled. Even though some tracks may use saxophone, while others use violins or trumpets, they all aim for achieving the same gestalt, cohesive sound.
It's normally the case that a musician debut's aims high but fails to achieve their vision. Often, we see an artist's debut and imagine what could happen if their potential was tapped in just the right way. Ellis Ludwig-Leone's San Fermin has a debut that aims high and meets it mark perfectly. San Fermin is an incredibly smart record, not because it's classy or intelligent (it's those things too), but because it knows exactly what it is. It's a grandiose album that's not overblown or overlong; it's a varied album that's not scattered or confused. Sometimes it takes an outsider to change the rules, push the boundaries, and recreate the expectations of a genre. Lil Wayne or Kid Cudi weren't the outsiders that rock-n-roll needed (with Rebirth or WZRD), but Ellis Ludwig-Leone is. Who would have thought that the creator of one of the best rock records of 2013 would be an Ivy League-educated ballet composer?