United Waters : The Narrows

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


United Waters :: Sunburner

United-Waters-cover-575x575United Waters’ Sunburner is the sound of a hot apartment in July. With the air conditioner on the fritz the windows are wide open in the blazing afternoon and the sound of the neighborhood seeps in like the humid belches of heat that consume you. In the distance a guy cranks his stereo and blares some unrecognizable industrial album; the kid down the hall spends a half hour plucking an out-of-tune electric guitar, while a couple blocks away you can hear city workers breaking up a sidewalk. You can barely make it out, but someone is definitely playing a drumset, out of time of course and in intermittent slaps, pats, and tats. All of these noises are alarming at first. Painful even in the heat as you try to find some semblance of solitude amidst the cacophony of aural chaos. But after awhile all of these noises begin to mesh. They blend into this pharmaceutical, hypnotic sound soup. Underneath all of the noise you hear a low, monotone voice speaking to you, soothing you. What’s it saying? You can’t tell, but that’s okay. Pretty soon the city squall becomes this muffled, warbly pop song. A score to a sticky, sun and sweat-drenched afternoon. An industrial lullaby played in the key of nothing in-particular.

I recently came across United Waters’ Sunburner and I was a bit perplexed. I wasn’t really sure what to make of it. Is it some avante garde take on noise rock? A codeine-laced, post-surgical numbed pop? I ran out of quirky, clever adjective-filled sentences to describe it. Pitchfork writer Marc Masters wrote this about Sunburner:

Yet every inch of Sunburner is muffled and drenched as if it’s wearing a sweater in 100-degree weather; at times, it resembles a Joy Division record played under a stack of mattresses.

I felt this was a great description but not one that would entice me to seek out United Waters’ Sunburner at any point in the near future. I listened as opening track “Blue Weaver” played and to my ears it sounded like some beat up, warped tape copy of a lost Morphine song. With its simple guitar riff and what sounds like a distant kick drum playing, followed by singer Brian Sullivan’s moan/vocal it all sounded fairly common. Then this warped, mutant noise comes up from the depths and turns the song into something else. Darker and more sinister. “Turn On Your Century” beats and booms along like a band playing some nondescript song in a room three doors down. “Sunburner” indeed sounds like the echoes of Joy Division running through their set list in a grimy Manchester garage as Leonard Cohen reads lyrics into a third rate microphone. “Our Beat” sounds like The Motels playing in an ether haze.

The whole albums chugs along song after song with a disjointed rhythm and a rusty, industrial darkness. Like something that would be playing in the background of a David Lynch film, or a black and white German expressionistic short film. You start out thinking why you’re listening to this noise, but by the end you’re hitting play again. And again. It’s a hypnotic listening experience. You won’t be putting this album on to entertain the family or for a party jam. But much like Body/Head’s Coming Apart, it’s a visceral listening experience that affects you. You may even find a place to curl up and hide inside it for a bit. That’s not a bad thing.

7.9 out of 10