(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Recording review - Sills & Smith, No Way In No Way Out (2012)

A clearer musical vision and a richer execution

Sills & Smith's previous album, Uncertain Vista (review) suffered from multiple personality disorder, bouncing between folky and indie extremes. Their latest, No Way In No Way Out, settles into a more coherent offering of pop-heavy indie rock. Settling on a path hasn't stifled the band -- the songs still create a rich variety of moods and they've continued to develop their sound.This expansive musical approach opens up the songs for interesting arrangements and tasty guitar solos.

The opening track, Melancholy World starts with sharp punch. There's satisfying contrast between the uptempo music and the droning vocals on the verses. The tight bass line and new wave guitar riffs sell the song. The only weak spot are the repetitive lyrics:
Melancholy world,
Melancholy life
Melancholy soul
Melancholy heart
Pop music's power lies in repetition, but it needs to be balanced with contrasting sections. While it could be argued that the chorus mantra on Melancholy World captures a sense of depression, many of the songs rely too heavily on simplistic lyrical echoes.

Take Clouds, for example. The opening lines capture an interesting perspective:
Thinking of clouds, billowy pillows
Strato, nimbo, and cirro
Dreaming of clouds, suspended liquid
Of water or crystals of ice
It's quirky, with a touch of They Might Be Giants cool . But the chorus comes and the lyrics get trapped in a loop. The backing music has a beautiful, sleepy retro tremolo soaked reverb. The understated solo is perfect. If the chorus lyrics had more to say, this could have been a much stronger song.

Thematically, No Way In No Way Out tries to unite pop simplicity with feelings of pain, loss, and frustration. It's manages to avoid teen angst moping, but it seems like lyricist Frank Smith is working through some issues. It's interesting that the two strongest tracks veer away from the pop mindset.

Would It All Be Different? takes an epic, meandering journey. The opening vamp sets up a thoughtful mood. The freeform lyrics fit the open music. This transitions through a more inquisitive instrumental section, with simple layers of guitar, keys, and inchoate voices. Jonathan Edwards' open rhythm drum beat expands this into a stronger progressive section with a fluid exploratory guitar solo. There's a touch of '70s art rock aesthetic behind the song's flow, especially as it climaxes into a rich melodic bass line.

The title track stands out with an ambitious arrangement. In contrast with the other songs, No Way In No Way Out is more open and subtle. Like U2 toying with psychedelia, the tune is filled with sonic texture: chiming guitar, vocal washes, and a rising sense of chaos. A resolute simplicity stands against a tumultuous world...because it must.

Maybe that musical assertion is the answer to Smith's tension - acceptance in the face of losing options. In any case, it's enough of an uplift to leave a better impression.

In a final note, Sills & Smith should consider giving Jonathan Edwards full billing in the band name. His playing is exemplary and his production work is a vital element of the band's sound.

Drop by their Reverbnation page to hear some tracks from No Way In No Way Out.

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