First, let’s get the obvious out of the way: Yes, Freelance Whales is strikingly derivative. They sound like some bizarre amalgamation of Wilco’s mustiness, Sufjan’s orchestral swagger, and that Owl City kid’s cutesy electro; in fact, the band’s debut album, Weathervanes, is thoroughly unoriginal in every way possible, even down to the Gibbard-esque vocals. Now, that sounds pretty damning, but fortunately their failures in ingenuity are easily made up in spectacle. Freelance Whales has excavated the best things about the preceding decade of indie pop into an album so chockfull of heights that it’s easy to forget how antiquated its elements are.
After a capable intro with the Funeral-esque “Generator ^ First Floor,” we’re thrown into the oversweet depths of “Hannah,” easily the most cloying track on the album, what with its mushy, semi-ironic lyrics and utterly obnoxious soda-pop synthesizer. The song is soaked in a cheap sardonicism that’s neither funny nor spoofing (“Every now and then she offers me a lemon Now and Later/Please don’t play the matchmaker/Please don’t be a player hater”), and it’s a really odd choice for the top of the record. But then there’s “Location,” a much more melancholic, serious tale of believable heartsickness that almost entirely cleans the palate of the drippy oversaturation that preceded it. It’s moments like “Location” where Freelance Whales is at their best, when they stop playing coy and put their earnestness forward.
Thankfully, the conscientious songwriting throughout Weathervanes overcomes the schmaltz with ease. Songs like “We Could Be Friends,” “Broken House,” and “Ghosting” never transcend their obvious influences, but they still thrive as beautifully performed orchestral pop songs. And that still sounds gorgeous.