The title track of Denali's second album, The Instinct, opens with the sound of a machine pulsing a little too hard, its fate underscored by a dusky keyboard vibrato. Four bars in, Maura Davis' weary voice drapes over the rhythm like an oversize trench coat, accompanied by broken guitar chords: "That moment/Something's wrong/That moment/I feel/Instead of/Wasting time/I'd like to rewind." And then the guitars take off in a percussive din worthy of the best Cure songs.
Denali released this record at the perfect time. Goth is back. In clubs throughout the land, up-and-coming bands are combing their hair over their eyes and striking dramatic poses behind their dry-ice machines. It's all right to feel again, darkly. Unlike most of the new bands mining the genre, however, Denali delivers the musical goods.
Descriptions of the band inevitably drop the name of Portishead -- with good reason. Davis' singing is worthy of the best trip-hop chanteuses, from Beth Gibbons to Björk. Davis consistently holds notes a few beats longer than you would expect, conjuring the sonic melodrama of Shirley Bassey's performance on "Goldfinger." But there's enough of a chill in the delivery to dampen the melancholy. Like all the best of James Bond's girls, she prefers to be shaken, not stirred.
The trip-hop comparison goes only so far, though. Denali is a rock band. When listeners get their bearings in the musical gloom, the guitars, bass and drums loom largest. The Instinct impresses most on those songs that use this fact to their advantage. Davis' voice gains more traction when the beat moves her forward. "Do Something" builds to a stunning crescendo, in which she wails "One more chance/Chance to do something" repeatedly over a thickly layered bed that recalls the bluesy cacophony of Royal Trux. "Normal Days" accentuates the contrast between slow and fast and soft and loud, moving from the breathy meandering of the first minute to yet another rave-up climax.
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By contrast, on consistently slow songs like "Nullaby," The Instinct seems more self-indulgent and less distinctive. When Davis forgoes the restraints of the rock format, she sounds more like someone trying to sound like someone else. Even "Nullaby," though, demonstrates her talent for making words that sound banal on paper resonate with pain and promise. No one will accuse lines like "A fatal incision/Cuts apart/Inject the living/Don't you breathe too hard" of being exquisite, but she wrings every ounce of meaning from them. That's a lot more important than having the perfect floppy haircut.