Held by my sweaty paw, the white-gummed seal "No. 10 REGULAR" seemed too light and inconsequential to contain good news. Manila is the envelope I want to see when expecting an announcement regarding the next four years of my life and beyond. Only in that large yellow rectangle can an acceptance letter be accompanied by a note of congratulation along with financial aid forms and various other brochures that bid one welcome to the world of professional schooling. The leaner correspondence with no hue only suggests a wisp of "Thanks, but no thanks" or "Just not what we're looking for at this time, but please feel free to try again."
Neither of these extremes proved to be true in this case, though. As I ripped open the envelope with all the fury and optimism I could muster in the face of failure and read the lines of courier print, I found I was not staring at a rejection letter, but, rather, a tentative rejection letter. Words like "alternative" and "wait list" are not much of a comfort in moments of fear for the future and the unknown, but they are something to placate the pain of disappointment. It is the consolation one receives for not being quite good enough at the moment to be worthy of the grand prize.
Listening to The River Nektar by The Iditarod, a re-release of their debut album, I get the same sense of being delivered to a lower tier while those of more worth move on to some upper echelon of evocative and titillating music. It is not the worst position one could find, but it is certainly not the best.
The album begins humbly enough with the track "Meadows." A stark feedback-driven intro gives way to Carin Wagner's thick vocals, and Jeffrey Alexander's unresolved guitar picking. The eerie mix ultimately yields to a metallic fermata, embracing the lo-fi medium upon which the entire album was recorded in all its fuzzy glory. This unfortunately does not counteract the ambiguously dark lyrical content that leaves an insincere and dubious taste in the back of the throat, like watching a community theater's performance of "Death of a Salesman."
Of course, if the entire disc were of this caliber there would be little consolation in this "consolation prize." Hence the charming "Bavaria," a bouncier track that one could imagine being played for the entertainment of all if not for the fragile vocals and oddly medieval poetic musings about equine loss. The sound is fleshed out a good deal more than the majority of the album, outfitting the acoustic guitar with slight percussion and a bass guitar accompanying Wagner's hypnotic drone, that lends itself well to the refined tastes of even the most hardened pop-folk fan.
"Gold Berry White" follows suit with a clockwork song remnant of a husky Liz Phair-composed work circa Exile. Over an incessant tap-tap-tap and staccato vocal delivery, the guitar propels the listener forward via unresolved chords accented by background string-shenanigans as Wagner waxes philosophic regarding the mysterious "Jacob." The track doesn't make a bit of sense, but it serves the purpose of providing an interesting distraction from the inequities of modern life, which is all you can ask of good art.
After a short guitar aside, "Boat" announces its entrance via use of the concrete music of a rumbling thunderstorm, barely heard beneath occasional bird chirping and the tremolo of a detuned guitar. This is undoubtedly the best song on the album, summarizing the sound and content of the group as well as their influences in less than four minutes. A timid guitar line slowly battles double-layered female vocals discussing a nihilistic resignation to all that is horrible in life. There is bravery found in lines such as "And my teeth will rot/ And my body will grow so old/ And my heart will crush from my biggest of loads," sung in a straightforward manner that never passes judgment upon the natural causes of these unfortunate consequences. "Mariner," "Providence" and "Garden" all explore this theme further in detail, though the music is more often than not pushed to the role of accompaniment to Wagner's convoluted and muddy words.
Partial redemption for these moments of lost clarity lies within the bonus tracks on this re-release of the album. Aside from enlightening live versions of the key songs on the album "Boat" and "Garden," specifically the group chooses to give explicit nods to their inspiring muses through the inclusion of Donovan's "The Lullaby of Spring" and Brian Eno's "The Fat Lady of Limbourg." The former is given an eerie makeover, with the gentle opening chords played languorously over chirping birds and the gentle hum of the recording equipment. While Wagner does not augment the lyrics at all, the content is nonetheless given an eerie undertone, not unlike Low's cover of "Sunshine" on their own first album. Similarly, the "Fat Lady" gets a dark edge augmented by a spitting drum machine, though the tempo is slowed appreciably. The song remains true to the original despite this, while at the same time giving the group a chance to display their instrumental capabilities, even adding an accordion to the mix.
Ultimately though, the added material stands as empty ornamentation to this mostly average album of pseudo-folk. In a garish denial of mediocrity, the LP raises the question of why one should accept second- and third-generation musical thought, when the first called for no improvement. Upon careful consideration, the only time one would choose the former is when there is a decided lack of the latter.
Just as in the case of my dreams for a successful career, denial of the best leaves only the consolation of the middle ground. For The Iditarod this translates into the musical "wait list." It is not a stretch to say that almost everyone prefers the grand prize to the consolation; in the same way, one would be inclined to choose any number of excellent albums before picking up The River Nektar.