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Review: San Fermin, 'Belong'

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.

San Fermin: <em>Belong</em>
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
San Fermin: Belong

San Fermin was conceived as a vehicle for the chamber-pop compositions of Ellis Ludwig-Leone, whose flair for ornate arrangements helped make the band's 2013 debut a complex and intoxicating concoction. On that self-titled record, the mouthpieces for Ludwig-Leone's vision — singerAllen Tate, plus Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe of the bandLucius — helped give San Fermin's sound a broad emotional palette. But in the years since, Ludwig-Leone has presided over a big band that's grown grander and more ambitious in every phase of its sound.

For Belong, San Fermin's third album, the lineup continues to evolve: Tate has remained a constant, while Lucius has long since departed, replaced first by Rae Cassidy and then byCharlene Kaye. But the sound has bloomed to accommodate songs that build and build until they threaten to buckle under the weight of their strings, horns, voices, beats and seemingly freeform cacophony. Gone are the painstakingly arranged, studio-bound classical flourishes of San Fermin's debut. Particularly in the album's busy opening half, listening to Belong is like opening a fire hydrant that sprays big, bold sounds and ideas.

These can take many forms. Ludwig-Leone was classically trained, and Belong reflects his commitment to maximizing the musicianship, cohesion and volume of a band big enough to whip up a serious ruckus. But it's also maximalist in other ways: As Kaye and Tate swap lead vocals, the songs seem to one-up each other in how ambitiously each can leap ahead of the next. In the Tate-led "Better Company," that means letting a blearily spare intro give way to a dance-floor throb that only gets more insistent as more ingredients are piled on top of it. Elsewhere, in "Dead," Kaye is framed by a menacing rumble worthy of the bandMorphine.

Belong isn't as high-concept as 2015's Jackrabbit, which opens with a death and fans out from there. These songs, by comparison, tend to direct their narrative attention inward, toward the natural human desire to find ourselves and own our desires. But in every other way, San Fermin has only grown more ambitious and audacious since its first two albums — which were plenty ambitious and audacious in their own right.

Belong is out April 7 on Downtown Records.

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Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)
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