Smile Politely

Album review: WFFM’s The House You’re Living In

This Saturday, Champaign-Urbana’s World’s First Flying Machine will celebrate the release of their debut album, The House You’re Living In, at the Canopy Club. For a mere $5 (or $7 at the door), you can catch Flotation Walls, a self described “angel orgy” from Columbus, Ohio at 10 p.m., followed at 10:40 p.m. by World’s First Flying Machine’s premiere of their new release.

The House You’re Living In comes to our ears at the perfect time — blame the side-swiping wind, blame the overturning ice, blame the soaking snow, but in the midst of this winter weather, The House You’re Living In feels like a promise of spring, a taste of hope packed amidst bare branches and empty evening streets. It’s an ambitious undertaking for a debut album, tackling both the pithy and the intimate, starting in a jubilant exhale and ending in an eight-minute, two-part epic which swells and lulls across an ocean of sounds.

World’s First Flying Machine pulls from a variety of aural elements, from the orchestral to the childlike, mixing violins with handclaps and tinkling bells. Their songs are most stirring, however, when these fanciful sounds give birth to vibrant stories of their own. The opener, “Inefficient Machines”, turns its self-criticisms into a celebration of flaws, embracing the twists and turns that make The House You’re Living In worth listening to. There are no pop beats, no synthesizers, no autotune — in fact, it’s the organic feel of the album that gives it such life.

This energy first hits its stride with “Billboard”, a warm letter to a turbulent lover, followed by what is by far the most stunning story on The House You’re Living In. “The Ferris Wheel” flies into a whirlwind of circus images crossed with dizzying flashes of butterflied stomachs and tied tongues, capturing the thrill and danger of tossing your safety net aside.

Lead singer Ben Campbell’s vocals are well suited to these free-flowing songs. Hints of Alec Ounsworth’s (of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah) unrestrained calls come through in Campbell’s earnest voice, singing out from beneath layers of playful percussion, colorful strings, and simple guitar chords. Credit should be given to the rest of the players as well — Laura Lynch’s evocative violins, Zane Ranney’s expressive drums, Chris Howaniec’s smooth guitar, Brian McGovern and Kurt Werner’s talents in unusual instruments (ukelele, glockenspiel, madolin, banjo, and vibraphone), and Katherine Robinson’s addition of textural sounds all meld together to create the many faces of World’s First Flying Machine.

It is when the band exercises too much restraint that their imprecision loses its organic nature. In “That’s What Friends Are For”, the music starts off stripped to its bare, acoustic bones, and its charm is strained under an effort that is comfortably absent throughout most of the album. Likewise, with “Butterflies”, the band takes on a somberness that seems at odds with the spirited soul of the rest of the album, and the lyrics lose their imagery. In the midst of release, a moment of tension drops in, and stories give way to abstract emotional calls. While not unpleasant, The House You’re Living In momentarily loses its grip on my ears.

But just when I start to think I know what World’s First Flying Machine does well and what they don’t, they prove that they have plenty more musical realms to explore. After the lull of “Butterflies”, the album dives into the delightfully vulgar “Love is an Art”, a song that takes me exactly where I want to go next — into a toe-tapping, lip-biting flirtation with a beat that makes me want to dance.

The album ends with “Intro” and “Red Is Turning Blue” (which should really be one song — who told you that you needed nine songs to make an album?), a wistful, warming return to the vivid storytelling that World’s First Flying Machine does best. Laura Lynch’s Katherine Robinson’s vocals pair beautifully with Campbell’s now-familiar voice, and the song feels like a send-off into brighter, softer, easier worlds.

Even with its few lulls, The House You’re Living In is a good companion for these short winter days, a reminder of good things to come. World’s First Flying Machine have proven to me that they’re capable of spanning many sounds, of bringing together many elements to create stories all their own. Let them prove that to you as well this Saturday, and spend a couple hours with me at the Canopy escaping from the snow and ice. If you’re as hooked as I am, you can grab a copy for yourself for $10, and still sneak across town in time to support some other local musicians releasing some tunes of their own at midnight. With the long list of musical elements World’s First Flying Machine brings to their music, it promises to be a spirited show.

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