Sub Pop · December 10, 2021
Kevin Whelan, bassist of indie rock group The Wrens, tries his hand at a solo project on Observatory under the pseudonym Aeon Station. While most elements of indie rock are present on this record, some of the material relies more on singer-songwriter motifs, and strays from the genre in that sense. It’s an interesting album with some good songwriting, and it definitely has its moments – Whelan has a knack for creating songs that spark a sort of wondrous feeling, almost child-like. However, the album does feel like it’s missing something, and at points suffers from being a little derivative or bland.
The album opens with “Hold On,” which features tender piano chords and introduces Aeon Station’s soft, boyish singing. The lyrics on this track are somewhat generic, as they are on most of the rest of the record, but it mostly slides for being such an intimate moment. Overall it serves as a decent intro, as the subsequent song, “Leaves,” opens with a similar set of chords and a similar vocal timbre. The song shifts from idea to idea toward the beginning, and it does feel pretty slow at that point, but all of these motifs eventually merge and the song becomes moving, with the long, drawn out vocal notes complimenting the instrumentals. “Fade” is really the first song, though, that impacts upon first listen, opening with overbearing and somewhat harsh guitar tones that are later joined by booming drums. Eventually, the track mellows out and becomes something much more serene, which is an impressive feat.
“Everything at Once” begins with some finger-style guitar picking that is instantly catchy, but it eventually gets drowned out by everything else in the mix. It’s a decent song, and the piano picks up that same riff nicely, but it could have been better. There’s also some compelling acoustic guitar work on “Queens,” this time bringing in a loud bass-driven guitar riff to succeed it. I think the raspier vocals on this track work incredibly well compared with some cuts on the rest of the record. The song explodes around the 3-minute mark into something almost ethereal, and it’s very interesting to see that dissipate into a more low-fidelity acoustic guitar recording at the end, almost like something from an early Mountain Goats record.
Most of the other tracks, however, are pretty forgettable. “Move” is a pretty generic guitar ballad, and “Empty Rooms” plays with some arpeggiating guitars and almost synth-like piano tones but ends way too early for anything to be really fleshed out. The one major weakness of this record, though, is how derivative it is. To put it bluntly, this record just sounds like an Arcade Fire record at some points. Certain songs, for example, “Better Love,” could probably be confused for other bands, as there’s nothing really distinct about them in terms of indie rock. Even the closing song, “Alpine Drive,” sounds like a Fleet Foxes song without any of the emotionally moving bits. Most of the record isn’t like this, but the parts that are are pretty draining to listen to.
There is some skilled songwriting on Observatory, but a good chunk of the record is unmemorable. While I do enjoy most of the material here, I can’t help but feel that this project could have been better if certain ideas had been expanded upon more, or even if some of the tracks had been left out. It has its flaws, but overall, it’s a decent listen for Wrens fans and indie rock fans alike, and there are definitely things to appreciate about it.