Review: Jake Bugg – Hearts That Strain

Jake Bugg frustrates me as a songwriter. His debut, Jake Bugg was a slow burn that quietly became one of my favorite records when it debuted a few years ago. Each subsequent record has been vastly different than the last, to mixed results. But one thing I am fully aware of is that at 23 years old, Jake Bugg is a force of nature that will be here for a long time.

You can buy Hearts That Strain on iTunes.

Hearts That Strain, Bugg’s fourth full length, follows suit with his previous works in that it is completely different from anything else he has put out. While his debut, an acoustic tribute to Oasis and Shangri La, was a grunge punk album, Hearts That Strain is a classic country tinged album that seems to channel John Denver in all the best ways.

What sets Bugg apart as a songwriter is how vastly different his work is, especially for someone whose debut album was released four years ago. While I initially fell in love with his ‘don’t give a shit’ acoustic songs that oozed with personality, on Hearts That Strain, Bugg blends a dreamlike homage to outlaw country with influence from the Gallagher brothers.

Hearts That Strain is Bugg’s most cohesive album to date. It doesn’t sound nearly as slap-dash as some of his earlier work, and is far more fleshed out than earlier records. However, the lyricism is more vague and doesn’t seem to have the same storytelling aspects of his classic, “Broken”.

Though his songwriting has always had a hint of bluesy southern rock to it, it is absolutely astonishing that Bugg is able to take a genre like classic country and make it his own to the point that it sounds in-line with his older works. The steel guitar, piano and the angelic backing vocals sound like more of a tribute to George Jones and Conway Twitty than most modern country acts can muster.  I would say that is an impressive feat for a kid from England.

“In The Event of My Demise” seems to channel the rhythm of The Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’” amidst a Johnny Cash-esque guitar line. “Waiting” is a perfect duet with Noah Cyrus, amidst romantic guitar strums, playful piano and violin, and a killer saxophone solo.

While the lyrics don’t give the straight pictures I would have hoped for, they are dreamlike enough that it allows you to paint your own image and setting given the music. A good example is “The Man on Stage”, which finds Bugg singing about a broken lover with the lines, “He took your heart with his heart / And then he led the man on stage / Is not the same man you’ve met / To the next town up ahead”. The piano and scorned violin convey a devastating heartbreak, even though Bugg hasn’t really said anything himself. It’s as infuriating as it is brilliantly catchy.

The only downside to the album is given how much energy Bugg has, it is a shame that every song has the same mellow energy. He doesn’t push himself in ways I had hoped at the start of each song. Instead, he found a groove and a sound for this album and stuck to it. But the depth of musicianship and number of instruments help make up for it.

Jake Bugg is an incredibly talented songwriter. The fact that he’s so young and has mastered so many different genres but still manages a cohesive discography is the feat of a genius. While I can’t claim that Hearts That Strain is Bugg’s best work, it is inspired. It harkens to the classic sound of country music in a way that modern country artists can’t touch. Considering that Hearts That Strain came just over a year after his last record, it makes this album all the more impressive.

3.5/5

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and has almost finished watching How I Met Your Mother for the first time. He just learned what the ducky tie is.

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Review: Aaron Gillespie – Out of the Badlands

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There is truly no denying Aaron Gillespie’s love of writing, recording and performing music. Even after his time as drummer for legendary post-hardcore act Underoath came to an end, as did his alt-rock side project The Almost, the Clearwater, Florida native has kept himself busy as the touring drummer for rock powerhouse Paramore, along with a smattering of other projects. While researching for this very review, I found that he had released another worship album just last year.

You can buy Out of the Badlands on iTunes.

You can buy Out of the Badlands on iTunes.

Thus, without proper context, Gillespie’s latest offering, Out of the Badlands, could potentially be labeled as lazy. Featuring only three original songs, the release largely consists of cover tracks and re-imagined songs from Gillespie’s past. However, one listen to Out of the Badlands makes clear that these songs were anything but mailed in.

Seeing as how Gillespie was a founding member and an integral songwriter for my favorite band of all time, he had me at “Underoath.” It’s true: Out of the Badlands features stark new versions of “A Boy Brushed Red… Living in Black and White” and “Reinventing Your Exit” – two fan favorites. Once a fast-paced screamo anthem, “A Boy Brushed Red” now finds itself as a patient acoustic track, with Gillespie’s plea of “This is where we both go wrong” sounding more painful than ever.

That’s what makes Badlands so captivating – even though we’ve heard many of these songs before, there’s an added depth and grief to be found in the wake of divorce. It’s fascinating to hear songs written over a decade ago find a new powerful meaning. The three original tracks on the album make clear where this new influence has come from.

“Raspberry Layer Cake” has a throwback country vibe with Gillespie using a deep raspy delivery to drop the sorrowful lines, “When everything you have is taken away / Like a lie on your wedding day”. By the time the album comes to a close with the journal entry-esque “You Don’t Love Me Anymore”, the pace has increased significantly, even if there is still little solace to be found. Even so, Gillespie’s voice once again sounds familiar on the soaring chorus as he extends his range to resolve the raw melody.

Other highlights on Badlands come in the form of a cover of Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me”, existing as a stripped down slow burn. The best of Gillespie’s The Almost reinventions is “No I Don’t”, transforming from an explosive pop rock track to an indie rock song highlighted by the same infectious melody. Both “Say This Sooner” and “Southern Weather” fail to differ enough from the originals in any remarkable to warrant their inclusion here.

All in all, Out of the Badlands serves as a time capsule showcasing some of Gillespie’s greatest hits, while also providing as a salve that surely proved therapeutic during the recording process. These new revisions give an insight into the artist as a weathered adult and oddly stand strong alongside his new entries. With this effort, Gillespie appears primed to close another chapter and embark on the next stage of his continually ambitious career.

3.5/5

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.

Country or Comedy? Wheeler Walker Jr. Bridges the Divide

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Wheeler Walker Jr. sneaks an impressive country performance into a club comedy act

 

It’s easy to forget that Wheeler Walker Jr. is a comedy act. Not that his music avoids it, Walker’s brand of country satire—as subtle as a sledgehammer—was on full display during a Monday night stop in Bloomington, Indiana. But it’s clear that Ben Hoffman, who created the Wheeler Walker Jr. character after his 2013 series The Ben Show on Comedy Central, also likes to rock. And the small, but rowdy crowd that gathered at The Bluebird Nightclub was right there with him throughout his set.

The five-piece band brilliantly played through a myriad of country music styles oddly and often amusingly juxtaposed against filthy lyrics. It was like watching Waylon Jennings cover Dave Attell. Even Hoffman works as front man, an adequate singer behind his Wheeler Walker Jr. character. The satire of Wheeler Walker Jr. goes for easy laughs over social commentary, but Hoffman and Co. earn an audience by backing its redneck character with a group of serious music professionals.

Hoffman has had no lack of talent rooting on his creation of Wheeler Walker Jr. It was alt-country singer Sturgill Simpson who encouraged him to cut a record as Walker Jr. with Grammy-award winning producer Dave Cobb (who recently worked with Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton, along with Simpson), with the caveat that he must go “full Kauffman” in character commitment.

Walker Jr. on stage doesn’t resemble anything close to an Andy Kauffman character, though. Not for lack of commitment—Hoffman is masterful at inhabiting the X-rated redneck rockstar. But he is much more interested in drawing cheers than boos, unlike Kauffman’s turn as a professional wrestling heel. He unites his audience in its distaste for popular country music—Florida Georgia Line is a favorite target—instead of enticing the crowd to turn on him.

Beyond a few attempts at Hoosier blasphemy (he claimed he could kick Axl Rose and John Mellencamp’s asses, and said “he rode around Bloomington” that day looking for the latter for such a challenge), Wheeler Walker Jr. embraced his status as a welcomed guest. The Lexington, Kentucky, native even went as far as to reluctantly congratulate Indiana University basketball on its recent tournament win over his hometown Kentucky Wildcats, which drew one the biggest cheers of the night.

The performance and Walker Jr. as a character are not a deconstruction of popular music as much as they are a pile driver—plowing into the core of the bro country id and exposing its more explicit nature to let everyone in on the laugh. If you can stomach the intentionally outrageous material, it’s a good time. And for Monday night show in a college town with classes out of session, Walker Jr. gave a performance worthy of a small, dedicated crowd that was partying like it was the weekend.

by Brock Benefiel

kiel_hauckBrock Benefiel is a writer from Indianapolis. In addition to his rap nerdom, he is currently writing a spec script for a “Love Monkey” reboot. You can follow him on Twitter.

Review: Brian Fallon – Painkillers

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I watched Brian Fallon play “A Wonderful Life” on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah the other night, and although Trevor’s questions after the song seemed shallow and awkward, Fallon’s performance was anything but. Painkillers, his first solo album, can seem at times slightly off-putting considering how fleshed out The Gaslight Anthem can be. But seeing Brian standing at the mic, the fire in his eyes as he sang, with three other guitarists behind him, it became immediately clear that Painkillers is a work of passion and deeper than what appears on the surface.

You can buy Painkillers on iTunes.

You can buy Painkillers on iTunes.

By “off-putting,” I don’t mean any harm, but rather that on first listen, it sounds like Brian Fallon played it safe: simple beats, xylophone melodies, Americana-esque guitar ballads that tip-toe the line between folk and indie rock. Essentially, The Gaslight Anthem stripped of the heavy guitar.

But Painkillers is an intricately woven fabric. With the essential pop songs, such as “A Wonderful Life”, the songs are created in a fashion that helps the music tell the story with a touch of country-infused pop. The central melody for “Painkillers” is a simple guitar riff that repeats throughout the song as though you’re staring up at the ceiling and watching the room spin in circles as Fallon sings, “And we wanted love like it was a drug / All we wanted was a little relief, and every heart in between / They were painkillers to me”, hiding the chorus of backing vocals and intricate slashes of the guitar.

Similarly, “Smoke” is essentially centered on the crisp beat light taps of the drum, and a swell of hand claps that diminish the guitar and punctuated piano as though lost in a foggy room. The slides of the electric guitar over the hand claps has a wonderful country-esque touch that seems to lift the fog as Fallon sings soberly, “And the black clouds came and darkened all our insides / There were newspaper clippings with horrible headlines / Of doom and despair and your name and my name said / ‘Who will save you from the truth of the matter, that your love, though like gold, is gone?’”

Not everything sounds like an experimental indie song though. “Steve McQueen” is a heartfelt acoustic ballad, with the gentle tap of the snare and egg shaker almost louder than the guitars and somber piano, as Fallon reminisces of faltered dreams. “Open All Night” is a bluesy country song that finds the conclusion of a loose story woven throughout the album of returning to the lights of large cities and the realization that the girl he’s been chasing is gone, for the better of both of them. “And I will never know the town where you finally settled down / With the top back on a Cadillac and your sunglasses on/  And you can’t make me whole, I have to find that on my own”.

“Rosemary”, one of the album’s true highlights and one of the best songs Fallon has ever written, is a rampaging rock song with sweet xylophone spread across the bridges. It is a back and forth story of a couple essentially discovering that they’re falling apart, and lead character Rosemary finding her self worth through the experience amidst garage rock shouts of “Hey! Hey! Hey!”

What Brian Fallon has done with Painkillers is pull off the best aspects of what was accomplished with The Gaslight Anthem and strip it down to a minimum. The guitars are quiet, the beats simple and the lull of the shaker takes precedence over flashy guitar solos. But what it makes room for is emotional storytelling. Anyone used to Gaslight’s rock might need a little coaxing into the softer tone of the album, but the passion on this album is something that couldn’t have been done any other way: Springsteen inspiration blasting at full force.

4.5/5

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and saw Brian Fallon live for the first time outside of The Gaslight Anthem. He sold out the House of Blues without even having a record out. The man is a talent.

Most Anticipated of 2016: #9 Taylor Swift Comes Back in Style

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Filling the Blank Space

Just over 14 months after the release of the most successful album of her career, coupled with numerous award nominations and a massive world tour, we’re already anticipating what’s next for Taylor Swift. In doing so, we recognize that it’s wholly possible (even likely) that Ms. Swift rides the continuous waves of 1989 all the way through 2016. But we hope that isn’t the case.

Swift has a history of proclaiming her need for “time off” shortly after the release and support of her albums, only to resurface sooner than expected with another offering. Now six singles into the lauded pop tour de force that is 1989, it’s hard to believe that Swift isn’t thinking about what comes next.

Her place atop today’s pop music mountain alongside the likes of Adele and Beyoncé is in no danger of crumbling, but in a world driven by the moment, there’s a constant clamor for something new. While Swift could easily coast through 2016 in relative silence without missing a beat, here’s hoping she’s ready to make some more noise.

Swift’s career trajectory has been astonishing to watch – from innocent pop princess to pop culture’s biggest action hero, there’s no denying her ability for sonic and personal growth. Wherever she goes next, our collective attention is sure to follow. Pop a wheelie on the zeitgeist? Nah, T-Swift holds it in the palm of her hand.

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.

The Story of Us: How Taylor Swift Won Me Over

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It’s 8:30 p.m. on a Wednesday night, and I’m standing outside of Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, frantically refreshing StubHub on my phone while bartering with a scalper for his final two tickets to the event inside. Before I can talk him down to the amount of cash I have on hand, an excited couple swoops in and buys the tickets. They head inside, where Taylor Swift is taking the stage.

The clock has struck midnight on my hopes to see one of my most anticipated events of the year and I must walk home in the dark, defeated. How in the hell did we get here?

***

My first job out of college in 2006 was as a disk jockey at a country music radio station in Enid, Oklahoma. I had no familiarity with the genre, other than to know it wasn’t something I particularly enjoyed. During my time at the station, I became quite familiar with the format, and while most of the music failed to win me over, there was one artist that stood out to me. Her name was Taylor Swift.

Swift was 16 years old at the time and had just released her debut self-titled album. Her first single, “Tim McGraw”, was named after one of the genre’s biggest stars, and while she was far from our most requested artist at the station, she certainly felt like an artist on the brink of something big.

I remember being taken aback by her maturity as a songwriter. Was a 16 year old really singing these songs? Many of her tracks were stripped down acoustic ballads and they felt like the songs from someone scarred, yet still content after years of pain. She seemed to capture the essence of country music in its simplest form. There was no flash, only the songs of a young girl who seemed seasoned beyond her years.

I still feel that sense of strength when I listen to “Teardrops on My Guitar”. The song feels familiar, and it has the unique ability to connect with listeners both young and old. We know that “Drew” is a teenage boy, but without context, he could be anyone, especially since we’ve all felt the need to laugh “’cause it’s so damn funny”. What that song captures in terms of emotion and experience is something many artists spend a career trying to achieve.

By the time Taylor released Fearless, her 2008 sophomore record, I was no longer working at a country music station – but no matter. Fearless would prove to be Swift’s true breakthrough, generating five singles, two of which were undeniable international hits. Taylor was officially here to stay, and frankly, unavoidable.

However, my respect for her craft vaporized quickly. On Fearless, Swift harnessed a number of big name co-writers and added pop elements to the mix, creating a blend that caught on quickly with a mass of listeners and blurred genre lines. Gone were the genuine, stripped down moments and in were bouncy teen-bop anthems about boy trouble. Increased radio play and MTV appearances bolstered Swift’s fame, and once Kanye rushed the stage during her VMA acceptance speech, Taylor was a bonafide superstar.

Much more than the sudden fame, I was troubled by what I interpreted as an artistic regression. It seemed as though Swift had sacrificed maturity and authenticity for dumbed-down radio hits that sounded as though they were written by a focus group. It doesn’t help when your most famous song’s chorus features the profound line, “You be the prince and I’ll be the princess / It’s a love story, baby just say, ‘yes’”. In my mind, Swift had gone from the next great country prodigy to the soundtrack to the worst knock-off Disney movie ever made.

When the just-as-successful Speak Now released in 2010, I had already made up my mind. I was the guy that used to like Taylor Swift before she sold her soul to be America’s teen idol. Even when the singles from 2012’s Red tickled my ear, I continued to write Swift off as childish and immature. I was stubborn and I was wrong.

***

So had Taylor Swift really become less mature as an artist, or was I just missing the point? The answer to that question didn’t become clear until last fall, when Swift released 1989. As one of the few who didn’t immediately fall in love with lead single “Shake it Off”, I’m still not quite sure why I decided to listen to the whole album upon its release. Even so, I distinctly remember listening to it. And then listening to it again. And again. That afternoon, I bought the album from iTunes. A week later, I bought the album on vinyl.

1989 was Taylor’s first official pop record – and it is a doozy. The album is a coming of age story and depicts the journey of a young woman who finally feels comfortable in her own skin. It’s wonderful pop music, but it’s also a bold artistic statement from someone who isn’t afraid to change her voice and redefine herself. Both thematically and sonically, it’s actually kind of brave.

As I wrestled through the emotional baggage that comes with falling in love with the music of the person that you once condemned, I started searching for why I felt that way in the first place. What I failed to realize (or simply just ignored) during Swift’s journey to stardom was that this was the actual journey of a real human being.

Put on the map at the tender age of 16, Swift has spent the better part of a decade growing up and finding her voice while standing in the brightest of spotlights. During that time, she also became the voice for a new generation of music lovers who hung on her every word. I just lacked the grace to see the situation for what it was.

Songs that once made my eyes roll, like “You Belong with Me”, now sound full of innocence. Tracks that once made me guffaw, like “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”, now make me remember my younger days and the confusion I felt. Of course, all of this fails to acknowledge the simple fact that during the majority of Swift’s career, I wasn’t her target audience, which is totally acceptable.

To put it simply – it wasn’t you, Taylor. It was me.

***

In the months since the release of 1989, I’ve come to love the record more than when I reviewed it last year. I’ve even come to enjoy Red (which I also purchased on vinyl), perhaps even more than 1989. Although my end-of-the-year Spotify stats won’t show it, I’ve probably listened to Taylor Swift more than any other artist in 2015. That’s a sentence I never in my life imagined that I would be typing at the age of 32. But there it is, and here we are.

When tickets went on sale late last year for the 1989 World Tour, I was still in a state of confusion about my feelings toward Taylor Swift. By the time I came to terms with the truth, tickets were selling on the secondary market for arms and legs. Alas, there would be no exorcizing of demons by crossing the threshold of Bankers Life Fieldhouse to witness Taylor Swift in person. For now, spinning those vinyl records will have to do.

It’s safe to say, her next record is already my most anticipated album of 2016. Funny how things work out.

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.

Review: The Dead Armadillos – The Dead Armadillos EP

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The Dead Armadillos are the type of band you always wished you and your friends would be; authentic, relaxed and writing about what you love. There are few folk-alternative bands out there that don’t feel forced, and even fewer that make me want to visit the band’s native Oklahoma to see what it was that inspired this EP.

The Dead Armadillos EP is something that feels familiar and comforting while maintaining a sense of identity. There is a loving mixture of Death Cab For Cutie and The Early November circa The Mother, The Mechanic, and the Path (mostly The Mother). The sound is recognizable, but it still feels distinctive from most anything else out there.

One of the most redemptive qualities is that each instrument is given its due. The bass isn’t under-produced, the vocals aren’t hidden beneath layers of music, and the guitars aren’t the focal point of the EP. Mark Hine’s drumming thunders through on “The Only Thing” and leads the band before knowing when to settle and provide only a ghost of strength during the EP’s slower moments.

Travis Lyon’s bass is a highlight as it bounces the album along at a crisp pace, even as the guitars take their time. As such, Lyon never stagnates too much on a single chord progression and provides a strong melody to boost the song. There is a slight tint of Chicago’s Lucky Boys Confusion and The Insecurities to the melodic structure that makes the songs sound local and birthed next door.

As lead guitarist, Bert Hughlett knows when to steal the show and when to lay in wait. The music itself seems to flow smoothly until Hughlett jumps to add a bluesy burst of energy before hiding again for the next opportunity (“I Can Change Your Life”). Nick Lyon, the group’s vocalist, guitarist and resident harmonica player avoids being drowned out by the music and finds the exact spots where he can pull to the forefront. While his guitar might be a bit stifled by Hughlett, the harmonica and vocals take center stage when the chance calls for it.

Lyon’s vocals are deep for a folk inspired group, but he manages to keep the lyrics on task. He also has a knack for bursting out harmonica solos that sounds absolutely necessary to each song. The only downside to his vocals is that they sound a bit monochromatic after a while, but this band is focused on the power of the vocals as opposed tracing as many notes on the scales as possible.

Lyrically, the EP focuses on relatable and down to earth tones that base themselves in Oklahoma. “Boston” is a prime example, as Lyon sings, “I know that I’ve got to leave / But I don’t want to go / Boston, I miss you / But Oklahoma, I’m heading home”. The country influences are few but strong; it is Oklahoma after all. “My Hometown” has Lyon singing about the double standard of remembering where you grew up – a mixture of wanting to leave and wondering how anyone could ever want to. “Everyone drives the roads / That seem to lead to nowhere / They follow everyone / In hopes they’ll lead out of here / In my hometown, my hometown / If you find the road in / You’ll have trouble leaving”.

The Dead Armadillos are a hypnotic mixture of country influence, blues, folk and rock. That’s not to pin anything against them; they’re not afraid to test the bounds of genre and blend a healthy mix of sounds together to create what they want. Each song feels home-grown, down to Earth and fleshed out. Unlike many bands’ initial EPs, The Dead Armadillos know who they are and aren’t trying to feign genre and inspiration to impress. The biggest gripe about this EP is that I am so curious about what their first LP will entail that The Dead Armadillos EP feels like a tease.

4/5

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and actually put Oklahoma on the map of places to visit because of this EP. Although to be fair, he’s easily influenced and susceptible to propaganda. PROPAGANDA!

Review: Merriment – Sway

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Being the youngest in the family can be a real downer. Rarely getting to take part in games with the older siblings, being perpetually confined to the backseat, having to fight for attention. In the case of the youngest DuPree siblings, Christie and Collin, the age gap resulted in living in the shadow of indie pop act Eisley, featuring sisters Sherri, Stacy and Chauntelle and brother Weston.

No longer must they wait their turn. The Tyler, Texas, brother-sister duo, better known as Merriment, began touring in 2012 before releasing the Through the Rough EP that same year. They have since signed with Equal Vision imprint Rory Records and have released one of the most remarkable debut albums of the year in the form of Sway.

You wouldn’t have been remiss to think of Merriment as a sort of Eisley Jr. in their earlier form. Christie’s vocals share a familiarity with her sisters’ and her dream-like songwriting over the top of the duo’s stripped-down acoustic sound lent itself well to comparisons. With Sway, the band hasn’t been completely reborn from their roots, but they’ve certainly distanced themselves far enough to be considered much more than a carbon copy.

Indeed, Sway leans much more in the direction of indie-folk and even alt-country than it does indie pop or rock. The duo’s songwriting has grown bounds since Through the Rough and their melodies now shine brightly.

While the album’s first two tracks, “Take Heart” and “Tremendous Love” wouldn’t feel too out of place on Eisley’s 2013 release Currents, the real progression begins with “Somehow”. The song holds a distinct country twang that surprisingly fits the band quite well – Christie’s vocals swoop up and down over the strum of her guitar as she prepares the listener for her story with the line, “I would tell you but I don’t think / You wanna hear these words I’m ‘bout to sing”.

Along with the sonic shift, much of the album’s content takes a turn for the personal, with Christie sharing stories that hint at youthful pain, confusion and hope. Even the mysterious lyrics of album standout “Backwards” seem to point at something deeper, especially with the line “Take it from someone who sees both sides of the story”. The track’s infectious chorus is driven forward by appropriately controlled percussion, showing its hand as a folk song while remaining covertly pop.

It’s these sorts of transitions and meshings of genre that keep the listener maddeningly engaged. “Patterns” once again displays the band’s poppier side with a cute, catchy chorus that finds Christie emulating the vocal stylings of elder sister Stacy, while “Right Again” swings the band back in a slower, folkier direction with the sounds of a plucking banjo. Album closer “Unhinged” utilizes a string arrangement to push the song to a crescendo.

In truth, Sway is all about motion, whether it be in terms of the figurative heart or in reference to the band’s shifting musical stylings. If this collection of songs seems at all scattered, chalk it up to experimentation from a young duo with a whole lot of talent at their disposal. One could hope that the band bends in the direction of their country/folk sound in future releases, but to nitpick at the details would be to ignore the promise and downright infectiousness of this fresh debut.

Merriment are no longer the cute little siblings of the Eisley circle. With Sway, they have established themselves as their own separate and unique entity – one that is sure to improve and grow even more in the years to come. For now, Sway is an astounding starting point.

4/5

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.