In traditional terms, a ballad is a poem set to music. In modern terms, a ballad is simply a slow song, a love song, or both. Of the four lengthy tracks on Ballads of the Research Department, two contain vocals – a bit distracting, but not overly so – and the others unfold like long lullabies. This is the first time that listening to The Boats has actually felt like being on a boat, with the slow swaying of the hull echoed by tiny, measured bursts of microsound. Suffice it to say that when the BPMs drop below 50, the word “rocking” takes on a more passive definition.
Perhaps this unhurried pace – this intentional balladry – is what makes the album seem so melancholy. Perhaps it is Danny Norbury‘s cello. Perhaps it is the shoegaze quality of the sparse vocals: Chris Stewart on Track Two and Cuushe on Track Four. And perhaps it is the very nature of quiet experimentation, as evidenced by a dual shift from the electronic to the organic and from the short track to the long. Few would intuit that this is the same collective who recorded We Made It for You. Instead, listeners may end up whispering the words of a completely different track: daydream, I fell asleep beneath the flowers …
The Boats have always been a bit hazy, but Ballads of the Research Department inhabits the haze like particles of dust suspended in a sunbeam. The ten primary notes of “The Ballad For The Girl On The Moon” are passed between instruments like a lazy baton, and when the gentle drummer enters, it’s easy to imagine that he’s been leaning against the open door, waiting patiently for his cue. Midway through the 13-minute piece, when most would expect a song to pick up, it slows down, allowing crackle and chime to emerge from the fog. The album’s only moment of quickening arrives in the final quarter of “The Ballad For Achievement”, as percussion calls attention to a tempo that previously has only been implied.
Ballads of the Research Department might have worked better in the Mobeer format as a set of CD3″s, which would have helped separate the vocal tracks from the instrumental and provided each track with its own showcase. Together, the four tracks blend into each other and lose some of their distinctiveness. Still, for those who enjoy peaceful, melodic melancholy, there’s little on the market that can compete: to listen is to draw the oars into the boat and simply drift. (Richard Allen)
Album preview from Experimedia