I won’t pretend to know much about Mouthus. I won’t because I don’t. I know nothing about the noise rock duo that hailed from Brooklyn, New York and who released close to 200 LPs in the course of 10 years(probably wasn’t that many records.) Well, I do know something. I know that Mouthus’ guitarist Brian Sullivan formed United Waters and released their first album Your First Ever River in 2011. I came into the United Waters world through their second album Sunburner back in 2014. That album was a gauzy collection of underwater-sounding folk grunge. It was like songs that had been soaked in gutter water and laid out to dry in the New York summer heat for days. They sounded like Carlton Melton decompressed and stretched out on an iron maiden. It was strange, claustrophobic, and oddly comforting.
United Waters are readying their newest album, the excellent The Narrows for Drawing Room Records. It continues to slowly clear the songs of vegetation and forest growth which allows Sullivan’s songwriting to shine even more. I wouldn’t call the record a pop album, but it’s a far cry from noise rock.
If it weren’t for Sullivan’s voice, The Narrows could pass for a quaint, indie folk album. The music is put together like jagged puzzle pieces, not quite fitting together perfectly but enough so that you can make out what is going on. But Sullivan’s voice adds an element of dark resonance that gives the proceedings a queasy feel. His vocals lie in subterranean spaces, like Mark Lanegan and Leonard Cohen having a conversation under a pile of mattresses. There’s melody and keys being conveyed in Sullivan’s vocal delivery, but not upfront. It’s assumed as you hear the music. As on Sunburner, nothing is obvious. The music feels muted and distant, like you’re hearing music playing in another room of the house. Or even in another house. But that’s the charm of Sullivan and United Waters. If it were easy to snag onto the melodies and songwriting, then this would be just another album you’d spin and put off to the side. But The Narrows is not that.
The songs are ramshackle and pieced together like a domicile in a shantytown. They should hold up in the rain and wind, but in case it doesn’t have an escape plan. “Move The Distance” is melancholy in its delivery. It’s like Sullivan’s version of musical desolation. It’s jaunty in its rhythms and the guitars sound pained while building the musical world that surrounds us. It’s like old Cure, but a sad and numb track you’d never heard before. Brian Sullivan chews lyrics like he’s chewing rubble. He gargles his words in weathered contemplation. “Ride The Midnight Home” is nearly early 80s pop, but done only the way United Waters can do it. There’s still lots of noise and confusion in the mix, but there’s a real subtlety here. “Even The Moon Remembers” rides on an acoustic guitar and wobbly electric guitar as Brian Sullivan emotes like Phil Alvin looking out over the edge of the universe. It’s a pretty track, and one that stands out in the United Waters catalog.
There seems to be a more nuanced approach on The Narrows. The dystopian haziness of Sunburner isn’t quite as prominent here. In it’s place is a more in-focus sound. Like the aperture has been tightened and the picture is much more in focus, but the sound remains mysterious. “Least Turn” and “Thunderings” benefit greatly from the noir-ish nature of the sound and songwriting. I could see Brian Sullivan reading old Jim Thompson novels and taking something from them.
Elsewhere, “Mile Wide” brings some of those “Out Of Flight” vibes to the proceedings and title track “The Narrows” ends the album like a lost industrial Leonard Cohen track. It sounds like murky pulp folk.
United Waters keep shedding more and more light on their albums. The Narrows feels like the most clear-eyed record yet, with Sullivan’s songcraft getting some much deserved attention this time around. There will always be an element of darkness and decay with Sullivan and United Waters, which is strangely reassuring to me.
7.8 out of 10