The last time I saw Noah and the Whale, they were promoting sophomore album The First Days of Spring. A far cry from their perky debut (the oh-so-twee Peaceful, the World Lays Me Down), this candid tale of Charlie Fink’s break-up with Laura Marling left even the Pollyannas of the audience a bit teary. Earlier hits like “5 Years Time” and “Jocasta” would have been ill-placed anywhere in the set, but stuck out even more in the midst of Charlie’s exposed heartbreak.
On Thursday, the band closed with that album’s titular song of rebirth. While it might seem odd to talk about the end of a concert before the beginning, this sentiment of renewed spirit characterized the entire evening at San Francisco’s Independent. For the first time since Noah and the Whale lost its female vocalist (Ms. Marling, of course), Charlie seemed genuinely happy.
Their third album, Last Night On Earth, appears to be at the heart of this transformation. I haven’t really been a fan of the work, with its fictional vignettes and Springsteen ambitions, because it seems to lack the authenticity that made First Days so stirring. Yet it has given the gang of spiffy Brits a new sense of bravado, a reason to embrace rock star personas. The set contained a fairly even mix of songs from the three albums (divided into self-proclaimed sections of ‘romantic’ and ‘party’), but there were no longer the emotionally jarring divisions between them. “Waiting for My Chance to Come” transitioned smoothly into Peaceful favorite “Shape of My Heart”, and “Just Me Before We Met” didn’t feel odd next to “Blue Skies”. The selections from First Days were lifted a bit from their depths and the others toned down just a touch. Every member of the band—including their energetic new drummer—was confident and clearly having a ball.
Don’t get me wrong: the three albums are still different as day and night (or, in this case, first days and last nights). But it was a joy to see the band come into their own as performers, and to see Charlie obviously enjoy his new direction. “The First Days of Spring” describes moving forward with a bit of hesitancy, a lingering dependence on the person who’s gone away. Placed in the context of Thursday’s show, the song (and the band itself) lost that backward glance. For the first time, I finally believed that spring had sprung for Noah and the Whale.
p.s. All my photos were taken with the Hipstamatic app on my iPhone 4. Who would have thought cell phone pics could look so damn cool? See my flickr on the right for more funky analog-style photos.