The debut album from Bows sounds like a haunted house. Male and female voices drift in and out, leaving a trail of partially decipherable words. From one track to the next, rhythms lull then skitter without warning. Violin and saxophone guide some songs, just as the record's mastermind, Luke Sutherland, would have it. He's much more interested in the shadows lurking behind dim corners than in what's before his eyes.
Sutherland is comfortable with beneath-the-surface tension. His previous band, Long Fin Killie, played rock that bypassed basic tenets -- three trusty chords, lots of guitars, choruses you could hum along to -- for embellishments and subtleties. "Blush" picks up where Long Fin Killie's last album, "Amelia" (1998), left off, adding two vocalists and using breakbeat rhythms to support the songs' framework. In songs like "Britannica" and "Girls Lips Glitter," programmed beats aurally replicate modern urban nervousness: "Will I make the last train home?"; "Is the next block safe to walk after dark?"
Sutherland, raised in Scotland, is a fiction writer. Anchor Books in the Britain published his first novel, "Jelly Roll," in 1998 and he's finishing a second. But on "Blush," he seems as concerned with the tone and presentation of the words as with their literal meaning, and there's no lyric sheet to guide listeners through his speak-singing. The lulling voices of Ruth Emond and Signe Hxirup Wille-Jxrgensen often drift into the ether, and Sutherland's own husky whispers and alluring falsetto is mostly submerged below layers of beats, gauzy guitar effects and occasional violin. His interest in the utterance of sound has led to a spoken-word record backed by indie bands Calexico and Mogwai, the electronic outfit Boards of Canada and turntablists the X-ecutioners, set for release this fall.
"Blush" is supposed to be a soundtrack for deep thinking, and for that reason the record isn't for everyone. The two vocalists make Sutherland's dark, velvety world sound a bit more familiar -- a bit more like Lamb and other Portishead followers. But the sometimes-Cocteau Twins-style production gives it vaguely Goth undertones, which the album cover, printed on vellum and depicting a winged siren, underscores. Still, it doesn't sound dated or weighted by its own garb. It just sounds spooky.