One of the strangest music stories of the pandemic was the crossover internet success of Nathan Evans’ “Wellerman,” a 19th century sea shanty that became a TikTok sensation. For a brief seasick moment, we imagined sea shanties taking over the airwaves, rum flowing in the streets, and five more Pirates of the Caribbean movies. But that was it: one hit song, multiple versions, no trend.
Lost in the Wellerman craze was an original take on sea shanties, offered by an ever-morphing collective of anonymous musicians from Portland, Olympia and Seattle known as Dead Air Fresheners, whose band members are identified, perhaps ironically, only after they are deceased.
A Collection of Drone & Noise Sea Shanties is highly creative and surprisingly respectful, the art punk experimentalists honoring their invented micro-genre from unique angles. The shanties are abraded, restructured and repurposed, the paint cup into which the brushes are dipped. The sea seeps through the walls of the recording, waterlogged words become instrumental passages, and an ailing vessel limps to port, crew ravaged with scurvy, delirious for the sight of land.
Opener “Anticipating Coastal Swells” contains wordless vocals, an elegy for sailors lost and ships retired; but “Swabbing the Skeleton Decks” seems like an order to work, with rattling chains and wooden chimes, a babbling child, a guitar attacked like the Mariner mangling the albatross. Bad luck follows: malfunctioning compasses, heavy breathing, drum abuse. This is not easy listening, but madness at sea. “We Play in Drains by the Sea” is dark and stormy, the water pouring in, the notes pouring out. A sudden synth passage brings out the ghosts, who howl and haunt.
In contrast, “Library Wave Machine” is cavernous and calming, an unflappable guide teaching a child about whales as sea sounds threaten to submerge them. The album cover’s crayon scrawls now make sense. In the face of the deep, we are all children. One track later, motors rumble and grind, new cargo is delivered, and it’s off to sea once more. Church bells ring on “Bird Highway,” serenading the sailors as they leave. A child sings; seabirds descend on fish and assorted carrion. The crew is freshly hydrated, supplied with Vitamin C to keep them sane.
Since this album, Dead Air Fresheners have gone on to release other works, most notably the sci-fi saga The Last Asteroid. And Iowa’s Personal Archives label has released a slew of experimental productions on multiple formats, including a Winter Batch whose highlight is Seth Andrew Davis’ deconstruction of Born to Run, Highways Jammed With Broken Heroes. We’ve plucked this release from the ocean like a half-drowned skipper, because it’s well worth saving; but there are plenty of other wild releases from this band and label, bobbing in the waves, hoping to be pulled from the planks to which they cling, eager to tell their tales. (Richard Allen)