Samir Khan, the singer with downbeat Canadian combo Kepler, has one of those great, yearning voices perfectly suited to his band's particular kind of melancholic alt-rock. Hear Khan sing and you immediately draw the dots, linking Mark Eitzel, Spain's Josh Haden, and Paul Westerberg, circa late-period Replacements album All Shook Down.
To be fair, Khan's voice has its own qualities and holds up pretty well in such
strong company, but it might just be Kepler's curse to be always naggingly reminiscent
of something else. It's a shame really, as Attic Salt has much to recommend
it, coming out of a turbulent time that saw the band lose its longtime drummer
to the Arcade Fire and nearly implode as a result.
The oscillating shimmer and slow crescendos of "Broken Bottles Blackened Hearts" raise the curtain, but the scene shifts immediately as the jaunty "Thoroughbred Grin" rings out, driven by a hi-hat groove. With a mood more wistful then melancholy, this marks its territory at the point where indie crosses mainstream in compelling, if restrained, performance. "My Other," "The Bedside Manner" and "You Must Admit" settle in to a mid-paced, swaying tempo. Khan's voice is, at various times, languorous, admonishing and gently pleading. Lyrically though, these songs are either cryptic or evasive, Khan stressing the general rather than the particular.
It's perhaps a testimony to the band's talents that this vagueness is offset by a consistently robust delivery, so that that it really only comes up as a kind of afterthought. It is, however, indicative of a persistent sense of something missing, that however gorgeous these songs at first appear to be, their durability is possibly lessened by their inability to pin down quite what they're about. As if in recognition of this, for its final third Attic Salt slowly winds down, retreating from the chugging groove and mild cynicism of "The National Epithet" into a dreamlike pace where otherwise thorny subjects violence ("Days of Begging"), social class ("Rented Limousine"), fatalism ("Reward and Respite") are rendered curiously neutral.
In the end the album's contradictory impulses, gently conveyed, blunt its impact.
But they also leave a sense of puzzlement, and enough reason to keep returning
to try and figure out quite how strong, or flawed, it really is.