Outside the realms of hardcore punk and hip hop, band names are rarely supposed to be taken literally. So it’s not terribly surprising to learn that Noah and the Whale aren’t exactly the trans-species minstrel duo their title might suggest. What is surprising is that – at least for a band consisting primarily of humans – it’s the whale part that actually has its basis in fact, representing bass player Matt “Urby Whale” Owens.
Noah and the Whale actually take their name from an amalgam of Oscar-nominated film The Squid and the Whale and its director Noah Baumbach, of whom the band are unabashed fans. For their third album, the band have moved away from the twee folk rock that characterised their early career (they’re contemporaries of current folk sensations Mumford & Sons, and Laura Marling is a former member) and fallen for the comforting sounds of 1980s soft rock. It turns out that the name Noah and the Whale is more prescriptive than descriptive for, like The Squid and the Whale, Last Night On Earth is very deliberate, very dull and lacking in any distinctive character of its own.
The band signal their intent straight from the off, with canned percussion and dated clipped synths forming the basis of opening track ‘Life Is Life,’ which is unlike anything the group have attempted to date. Just as surprising is what comes out when frontman Charlie Fink opens his mouth for the first time – an exaggerated American accent in the rough mould of Tom Petty. While there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with a musician affecting a new accent to fit the style of music, his choice of accent is symbolic of the album itself – mimicry without the wit or imagination to differentiate itself.
Other influences aren’t particularly difficult to pick out, so steeped is the album in the working class American rock of the ‘70s and ‘80s. ‘L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N’ sits in the melodic sweet spot between the Kinks’ ‘Lola’ and Lou Reed’s ‘Take a Walk on the Wild Side,’ borrowing as it does elements of both songs, while ‘Tonight’s The Kind Of Night’ leans so heavily on the chorus piano from The Who’s ‘Baba O’Riley’ that it seems permanently on the brink of toppling over. There are little bits of classic songs dotted through the record’s ten tracks, which would be fine were anything new or interesting added to the equation, but for the most part Noah and the Whale fail to lift themselves to the challenge.
One of the rare instances where the music does in fact stand up on solid foundations is, ironically, the one that takes the most cues from a particular Petty song. ‘Waiting For My Chance To Come’ bounds along with muted electric guitar chords a la ‘I Won’t Back Down,’ and vague, non-committal lyrics about “the great unknown,” however its opening – a triumphant mesh of soaring violin and evocative acoustic guitar – is an all-too-infrequent example of the carefree whimsy that made ‘5 Years Time’ such a fresh and unforgettable indie pop tune.
Last Night On Earth clearly intends to evoke nostalgia for a bygone era, but it’s an era that, in reality, finished before any of the band members were even born. It is nostalgia informed entirely by somebody else’s nostalgia, and it’s taken to its logical conclusion on the ridiculous marimba-driven Springsteen knock-off ‘Give It All Back,’ on which Finks sings about the “summer of ‘98” when he was “living out in the suburbs, planning my escape.” There, he “formed a band with a couple of friends” with “influences like Bruce and the Band.” Inspirational stuff.