A band's first album is often an imperfect but promising attempt to establish an identity, with subsequent records working to better define or expand on that image. With their second LP, staysail, Raleigh's Gray Young does the opposite. The trio's 2009 debut, Firmament, was a self-assured album that found the group fully formed. Through 13 tracks, Gray Young effortlessly connected the dots between the UK-born strain of arena rock (U2, Radiohead), the cultish peers of those superstar groups (The Chameleons, The Field Mice) and even the operatic grandeur of instrumental post-rock acts like Mogwai and Explosions In The Sky. While nothing was necessarily new about Firmament, it was a well-paced pleaser that augured good things for the group's future. But staysail doesn't quite deliver on those tidings.
To Gray Young's credit, the group doesn't settle for making the same record twice. Amid the swelling, pop-friendly tunes and bracing instrumental interludes that they perfected on their debut, a few songs exchange the usual pedal-pushing frenzy for some acoustic ambience. Unfortunately, these divergences don't portray the group—specifically vocalist and guitarist Chas McKeown—in the most flattering light. As another instrument floating in the raucous haze, McKeown's meaningful mumbles fit perfectly within Gray Young's aesthetic. When his voice is front and center, however, as it is on the mostly acoustic "Unbound," it wilts. "A Clearing," the album's final track, is a more effective showcase for McKeown's voice, setting his mournful croon against nothing more than an elegant guitar figure. At just over 90 seconds, though, the piece sounds more like the introduction to something grander in scale than an honest-to-goodness song.
That's a systemic problem on staysail, which truncates some of its best ideas and overemphasizes some of its weakest. Firmament offered studied concision, each move executed swiftly and decisively. But staysail's songs often end abruptly, just when they're getting somewhere, or overstay their welcome. It's as if the impulse to create friendly three-to-four-minute tracks clashes with the urge to unspool lengthier epics. The album starts off on this sort of bum note, with the half-hearted "Ten Years" serving as a barely there welcome. "The Dawning Low" begins well but extends its intro much too long; by the time the track finally switches gears and brings in McKeown's vocals, it's almost finished. Mix in listless mid-tempo workouts like "Cycles" and the enjoyable yet ill-timed instrumental "Seven:Fourteen"—who needs a change-of-pace palette cleanser when there's been barely anything to sink your teeth into?—and you have the very uneven first half of staysail.
Thanks to spritely tunes like "Vermillion" and "Meridian," the back end of the album picks up considerably. Indeed, moving one or both of these tracks closer to the front might make a world of difference. Part of the problem here, certainly, is pacing. That seems appropriate, since it's best to hope staysail is only a detour on Gray Young's path back to solid ground.