Shipping News – One Less Heartless to Fear LP – Karate Body, 2010
Shipping News’ One Less Heartless to Fear might fool you. If you didn’t know this album was sourced from two live performances (Louisville in 2009, Tokyo in 2006), recognize the two tracks from 2005’s Flies the Fields, or hear the occasional crowd noise, you might initially assume that One Less Heartless to Fear is the product of a flourish-free Bob Weston recording session. Instead it’s a live album of primarily new material, a unique proposition which pays off in spades. That this decision was made out of necessity—Jason Noble’s cancer treatment prevented an elongated studio session—doesn’t detract from its success: One Less Heartless to Fear couples Noble and Mueller’s trademark knotty riffage and elliptical lyrics with a welcome dose of immediacy courtesy of its live setting.
Looking back at their catalog, immediacy has never been Shipping News’ foremost strength. Their 1997 debut LP, Save Everything, marked the highly anticipated reunion of Rodan’s two singer/guitarists (even though Noble played bass until Flies the Fields), but its germination as background music for NPR’s This American Life predicts the album’s penchant for swaying instrumental passages. I appreciate the moody textures of “A True Lover’s Knot,” “All by Electricity,” and “Steerage” quite a bit now, but if you come to the album expecting for the aggressive dynamics of Rodan’s “Everyday World of Bodies” (live video alert) like I did back in 1998, it’ll leave you scratching your head. 2001’s Very Soon, and in Pleasant Company reigns as their most consistent record, but its highlights are introspective slow-burners “Actual Blood,” “Quiet Victories,” “Contents of a Landfill,” and “How to Draw Horses” (the last a marvelous companion piece to Rodan’s “Bible Silver Corner”) not the requisite math-rock instrumental “Nine Bodies, Nine States.” A series of experimental EPs under the RMSN tag (subsequently collected in the Three/Four LP along with a few new tracks) explored unfamiliar terrain, but putting the ghostly visions of “Haunted on Foot,” the throbbing bass of drone-rockers “Paper Lanterns” and “We Start to Drift,” the weary balladry of “Sickening Bridge Versus Horrible Bed,” and the coiled aggression of “You Can’t Hide the Mark Inside” on a single map is a tall order. Flies the Field regains that cohesion by reining in the scope, but in turn loses the spontaneity of Three/Four’s smorgasbord. I ultimately came around to hear each of these releases on its own terms, but in every instance, it took time.
This history is precisely what makes One Less Heartless to Fear such a thrill; it’s not an album that requires months to gestate. With the tight, Shellac-ian rhythms that open “Antebellum,” Shipping News announce that they’re not here to fuck around. Jason Noble’s ragged barks of “Is your heart a frozen river? / Is your heart a frozen lake?” supplies “This Is Not an Exit” with a heavy dose of gravity, but the uncharacteristic humor of “We’ve got cornea scans / E-mail scams / Root Beer Tuesday / Hot Fudge Thursday / Thank God it’s Thursday” cuts that tension in smile-inducing, fist-pumping fashion. The bloodied-knuckled chant of “Calm down!” in Flies the Fields holdover “(Morays or) Demon” fits One Less Heartless to Fear’s up-front nature perfectly. Rave-up rocker “The Delicate” chews on repetition like “She can hear the birds living in the leaves with their fucked up fucked up language” with demonic glee. When Heartless downshifts with the moody instrumental “Half a House,” the tensely introspective “7s,” and Jeff Mueller’s thousand-yard stare on Flies the Fields’s “Axons and Dendrites,” it feels earned, necessary. The balance between blunt force, instrumental dexterity, and haunting memories is spot-on.
Who knows if Shipping News would’ve carried the fervor from their live sets into the recording studio regardless of the scenario, but One Less Heartless to Fear benefits exponentially from its constraints. It exhibits Shipping News as a well-oiled live band with inspired new material and cuts the fat away. For the first time in their history, I can’t ask for more.
Given Jason Noble’s aforementioned battle with cancer (which you can read about in his Caring Bridge journal or this affecting article from his recent stint as a guest editor for Magnet), it would be easy and understandable to plug this album on that basis alone, but the fact that it downright slays removes any sense of charity. (I'm doing you a favor, not Noble.) I probably don’t need to remind you that Noble’s been responsible for a slew of wonderful albums from Shipping News, Rodan, Rachel’s, and other side projects. So if you’re interested in One Less Heartless to Fear, pony up the money for the download, CD, or LP, drop $2 to the Red Cross relief efforts in Pakistan and get the non-album single "Take a Deep Breath," pick up the Young Scamels album (a Rachel’s offshoot that scored a Louisville performance of The Tempest), buy a Shipping News, Rodan, or Endpoint shirt with profits going to Noble’s care, or at the very least, send the man some goodwill. Things seem to be looking up for him lately, which is a huge sigh of relief for both his physical well-being and my hopes that he continues making music as memorable as One Less Heartless to Fear.