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New York's Freelance Whales emerge from the subways into the spotlight

Even before Freelance Whales released their debut album in April, they had already been named a "Band to Watch" by both NPR and Spin. A five-piece New York indie band with an affinity for esoteric instruments, it lived up to that promise with Weathervanes, a 13-track exploration of what frontman Judah Dadone sums up as "transmutation, people turning into animals, and spirits transferring themselves from one body to another."

So what else is new, you might ask. Well, there's the unlikely interplay of glockenspiel, banjo, and Moog synthesizer that opens the album, the subtle five-part harmonies, the evocative lyrics that come straight from Dadone's dream journal and, of course, the ceaseless comparisons to the Postal Service. (Entertainment Weekly recently called Weathervanes "the best electronic indie-pop debut since Ben Gibbard last tuned his laptop.")

"I love Death Cab for Cutie and I love the Postal Service," says Dadone of Gibbard's two bands. "But I feel like I also love them enough to know how different our music is from theirs.

"People feel like the timbre of my voice is similar to his, which I think could be the case, but it's absolutely something that I'm not trying to do. I feel like our voices naturally ring in a certain kind of timbre but, in my mind, that's just one detail in what is essentially a very complex piece of instrumentation and melody and the way lyrics are approached. I mean, certainly in terms of instrumentation, we have very little in common."

Going underground

Sure enough, you don't hear a lot of banjo on Postal Service tracks. Or harmoniums, glockenspiels and mandolins. While Freelance Whales' Jacob Hyman limits himself to the drums, Dadone and his other bandmates — Doris Cellar, Chuck Criss and Kevin Read — play at least four instruments each. At the moment, Cellar is keeping her eye out for a bass ukulele, while Dadone couldn't resist investing in a guzheng zither after seeing a New York street musician playing one.

"We like new instruments mostly because they help you rediscover what's strange and mysterious about music," says Dadone. "Your hands will naturally do different things on different instruments, and that can totally change the songwriting process."

Dadone and his band are also fascinated by the idea of making acoustic instruments sound electronic, and vice versa. It's a skill that served them well when they decided to take their music to the streets and subways of New York. Going underground, in this case literally, turned out be an odd but effective career move.

"If you call up a booking agent at a club and you convince them that you can bring 25 of your friends to drink, they're gonna book you," says Dadone of a city that's overrun with venues. "It's nice to play for your friends, but at some point it's like bumming money off your parents or something.

"But if you stand on a subway platform and play for five hours, you're gonna meet a lot of people that make music videos, or are photographers, or do A&R at Columbia Records."

Dreams deferred

While he currently makes his home in Queens, Dadone grew up in Delaware and spent summers with his father's family in Israel. Graduating from college in 2007, he moved to New York armed with a degree in English and creative writing.

That may not have been the most practical course of study, but it's paid off on songs like the Kafkaesque "Broken Horses." Arguably the album's most compelling track, the song was inspired by D.H. Lawrence's "The Horse Dealer's Daughter" and James Joyce's "The Dead," as well as a dream the musician carefully wrote down in his journal. The lyrics, he says, concern a woman whose love for an escaped horse gradually turns her into one.

So what would Freud say about all that?

"Oh man, a few years ago I might have been able to give you a better answer to that," says Dadone. "The whole inspiration for the record was after having taken a class called 'Freud, Shakespeare and Dostoevsky.' We read their works and interpreted them as if they were a dream, using the methods that Freud used on himself."

While the songwriter kept his own dream logs for years, he recently decided to discontinue the practice.

"In the end, it's a very self-indulgent thing to do and, I think, not a very healthy thing to do," he explains. "I was starting to remember too many dreams, and it was starting to almost take precedence over stuff that was actually happening in my waking life. I started to treat people differently based on the way they had treated me in dreams."

I ask Dadone where future songs will come from. Surely not real life.

"I think writing surrealistically is something that I might be just growing out of, and maybe the natural progression from the last record would be to write something confessional. I mean, there are so many artists that I love who do that, like Bright Eyes for instance. Conor Oberst is just a great confessional songwriter. And that's something I grew up with that's just as big a part of me as any of those other things."

bill@csindy.com

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