Like most kids raised in Michigan, siblings Amy and Will Bennett of the indie-pop band The White Ravens submerged their summers in local lakes and rivers. These memories, mingled with lyricist-vocalist-bassist Amy’s fascination with mysterious underwater worlds and species, seeped into the duo’s songwriting and culminated in their third and latest album, Saddle Up the Whales. This collection of upbeat, keyboard-propelled songs finds the band in the familiar waters of their 2010 release, Gargoyles and Weather Vanes, which earned pianist-composer Will favorable comparisons to Ben Folds and Billy Joel. The White Ravens continue to craft sparkling, irresistible pop music that invites us on a vacation from the ordinary. Listening to their cool, buoyant songs, one imagines the pair spent their summers snorkeling by day, waterskiing by night.
As its title suggests, Saddle Up the Whales promises a fantastic and unpredictable ride to places strange and imagined. Take the title track: the lyrics pose an admittedly absurd scenario involving poisoned worms and homicidal robins that the singer must flee on whale-back. The song floats on one of Will’s punchy piano riffs, pulled along by the rope of Amy’s girlish vocals and the backing harmonies of the local pop group the Greatest Hits. The nerdy weirdness of the lively verses and chorus is interposed by two slower, darkly mirrored orchestral bridges that resonate with the haunting sounds of whale song and the soaring string accompaniment of violinist Sophie Zhang, Amy’s U-M co-op roommate.
If you’re willing to trust and indulge The White Ravens in their quirky lyrics and shifts in tempo and mood, you’ll find it hard to resist the rock-operatic “Spaaace,” about an inept captain, a helpless first mate, and the dread space pirate Daggerbeard. Will begins the song with a quick piano treble melody somewhat reminiscent of the Peanuts theme song and then alternates between hitting the brakes and pressing the gas pedal in a restive drive interspersed with the chorus’s compelling march and a clean staircase of synthesized scales, before progressing into a swaggering pirate punk cabaret roused by accordion and shouting. This raucous song and most of the others on the album feature drums by Liberty DeVitto, Billy Joel’s drummer of three decades; The White Ravens’ live shows include drummer Jeremy Frey.
In “Rube Goldberg,” the prominent treat is Amy’s taffy-sweet vocals, as she nimbly sings her way through a playful and convoluted chain reaction that causes her to “fall like a domino” into another’s arms. Contrast this song’s pretty, high-pitched chorus (which you can get out of your head only by going to sleep) with “Conspiracy,” in which Amy luxuriates in a lower vibrato uncannily reminiscent of Gwen Stefani, and you have a charming chameleon of a singer whose arched enunciation of certain words also occasions surprise.
The White Ravens’ release party for Saddle Up the Whales is Saturday, September 29, at Woodruff’s in Ypsilanti, with profits donated to Michigan water conservation groups.