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baleen continues to grow and adapt
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The last time Chapel Hill’s indie-rock darlings baleen played Savannah, it was also their first visit to the city. Oddly enough, for a group that’s become known for relatively ornate, electric guitar, keyboard and trap set-based songs that run the gamut between vitriol and soft-spoken odes to impermanence, they were booked into a coffeehouse that’s known more for showcasing solo artists or acoustic singer/songwriting acts.

By all accounts they went over well that night, but sure enough, now that they are returning to our area, they’re playing a different room, and one that is certainly accustomed to a louder and more forceful style of underground rock music.

However, in yet another slightly odd matchup, this new venue is known far and wide for primarily booking a more elastic – and some would say psychedelic – brand of freeform rock that seems a wee bit at odds with this quintet’s seemingly compact and highly structured songs and compositions.

Still, drummer Phil Disher (who also handles sampling and programming duties in the group) says he’s not concerned at all with how the regulars at this River Street nightclub will accept their show, nor is he particularly concerned with having to adapt what comes naturally to his group for the sake of getting over.

“I like to think that we can adapt to any venue,” he says from the group’s new home base in Atlanta. “If people are into a tune, we can take it out as long as it needs to go.”

He and his bandmates (vocalist and sax man Tony McCullough, bassist Steve MCMillan, vocalist and keyboardist Derrick Hines, and vocalist and guitarist Mike Vagianos) have been playing together since 1998, and to date have recorded and released three full-length albums of peculiar, intellectual rock music that draws on an unusually wide number of artists and genres for inspiration. From the art-rock of Gentle Giant to the somber and wistful tones of Tortoise, baleen’s recorded output is nothing if not perplexing, but – that said – they are far from off-putting.

In fact, a great part of what draws the listener into their brand-new release Follow Me Blind, has as much to do with the way the songs are presented, as the songs themselves.

The tracks draw the listener in through the unusual choices the band employs in the recording and mixing process. One aspect of this is the hushed and double-tracked vocals (which seem to echo the work of Pinback’s wÜnderkinds Rob Crow and Zach Smith). Then there’s the vocals themselves – plaintive in a way that hints at a now all-too-typical “post-hardcore” vibe, but which also betray more than a passing influence of traditional Southern soul. It’s slightly reminiscent at times of the R & B-soaked metal of underrated Christian prog-rock pioneers King’s X.

Live drum tracks and heavily processed samples and sequenced percussion parts co-exist, weaving in and around each other, combining to form a deadly combination of funk and trance grooves that – while occasionally jarring – are at the crux of the group’s extremely effective and hypnotic grooves.

In fact, one memorable ballad (“Take A Number”) is built around a strummed acoustic rhythm guitar figure and introspective, second person lyrics. The frail vocal delivery and chord progression recall Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd and Man Who Sold The World-period Bowie.

When I mention this observation to Disher, he chuckles.

“Actually, you’re pretty right on – we’ve covered ‘Man Who Sold The World’ and (Barrett’s) ‘Bike’ on several different occasions.” He readily acknowledges the group’s unusual array of touchstones.

“Some of us grew up metalheads while others have deeper jazz background. Of course, while our back catalog of material seems to show all sorts of influences, we are now trying to concentrate on streamlining a more consistent ‘baleen sound.’”

Disher does admit, though, that there’s a big difference between honing what it is they do best and trying to crossover into appealing to a wide swath of listeners.

“We’re a bunch of musicians that happen to love all sorts of music. As far as us going in a mainstream direction or not, who knows? We really don’t have much say in that. Our main goal now is to write and record as many compositions as possible and to play live in as many cities as we can visit. Everything else from there is out of our control.”

Baleen plays JJ Cagney’s on Wednesday, November 30 at 10 pm.