In Brief: A stunning EP from a promising young band. Only 5 songs and 20 minutes, but all of it attains 5-star indie pop glory and doesn’t look back.
I stumbled across the Oakland-based band Trails and Ways about a year ago, solely because they happened to have an opening slot for Paper Route at L.A.’s Bootleg Bar. Well, less of an opening slot, and more of a coincidence of being on the bill on the same night, but I digress. Since it was one of those recently re-gentrified venues that I could tell had been some sort of a warehouse in the not-too-distant past, I figured I was in for another one of those “too cool for you ’cause you’ve never heard of ’em” types of indie bands that I’d hear once, find indistinguishable from everyone else, and promptly forget. I’m not terribly patient with opening acts I’ve never heard of, especially when I’m dying with anticipation to see a favorite band live for the first time, but I make my best attempt to receive the politely. As it turns out, Trails and Ways had a much more colorful sound than their sorta-bland name would imply. With 2 guys, 2 girls, at least 3 languages, and styles pulling together the highlights of several different decades, I found myself enjoying their set enough that I made a note to look them up whenever they managed to get an album out. You know how some bands sputter about with EPs and one-off singles for a while before they finally break through? Well, usually I wait for the breakthrough to take the plunge with a new band, but these youngsters made such enchanting noises that I broke my usual rule and decided not to wait for that.
Trilingual, released earlier this year, pulls together 5 of their songs, some of which have been floating around since 2012 if not earlier. Sound-wise, it’s remarkably cohesive and has tons of replay value for such a short EP – 20 minutes and I’m just dying to hear more. The first things that struck me about their sound (they describe themselves as lo-fi, and I refuse to believe them because it’s way too clear and bright and harmonious for that) were how the jittery guitar parts and heavy emphasis on rhythm and syncopation reminded me of Vampire Weekend, while the easygoing vocals trading off between lead singers Emma Oppen and Keith Brower Brown reminded me of (my admittedly limited exposure to) Belle & Sebastian. Somewhere in between all that, they’ve found room for a sort-of-new-wave, sort-of-urban synthetic influence that conjures up the sorts of day-glow graffiti images I’d usually associate with the late 80s melting into the early 90s. Their music gives me a sense of movement – both in the superficial sense of being swept up in its rhythmic flow, and in the deeper sense of wanting to see the world that they’ve been gallivanting around. It’s the sort of music that, if you’re at all inclined to take road trips or jet off to some tropical beach to get away from it all, you will want to put several of these songs on your vacation playlist. Yet there’s something in the lyrics that, underneath the easygoing vibe, indicates a subtle sense of unrest. Whether it’s political, or personal, or just a general feeling of antsiness about staying in one place or too long, it permeates these songs from beginning to end, to the point where I’m excited to see what sort of journey a full-length album would one day take them on. If Trilingual were an album, and it managed to keep up even half this level of quality for five more tracks, it would easily be one of my favorite albums of the year 2013. As it stands, there are very few EPs that I consider worthwhile enough as a standalone statement to listen to them over and over in sequence, and this may be one of the finest such examples in my collection.
1. Como Te Vas
The band doesn’t even wait until a few tracks in to throw you into the foreign-ness that helps their music to stand out so much – they launch gung-ho into a song written entirely in Spanish, which also happens to be one of their most addictive singles. With gentle chimes and a bright rhythm of hand claps and snaps to lure you in, this one might seem like it’s employing the oldest indie pop tricks in the book, but it’s the juxtaposition of the Spanish lyrics, the booming bass and the DIY indie aesthetic that make it special. Lyrically, it’s about as repetitive as “Feliz Navidad”, so even with my rusty high school Spanish skills, I can figure out that the gist of it as about knowing someone loves you, but wanting to hear them express it to you in no uncertain terms. Emma’s lead vocal is earnest and beautiful, contrasting with the deep low-end of her bass and Hannah Van Loon‘s summery guitar solo. Everyone in the band chimes in on background vocals, and I appreciate a band with that sort of harmonic depth, that can also change up lead singers and keep it fresh. Instant winner here – but heck, so is every song on this EP.
The sound of a guitar amp being plugged in against the backdrop of a busy street aptly sets the stage for a song whose guitar riff will ring in your ears for days. This one’s probably where I get the Vampire Weekend drift the most. Keith sings lead here, and his lyrics contain bits and pieces of either Spanish or Portuguese – I recognize enough of it to know that the title means “Never”, which is interesting when it juxtaposes with otherwise English lyrics that seem to communicate understanding and kinship – “I wanna tell you how you’ll understand/I will nunca, nunca.” His second verse is particularly interesting, sympathizing with someone who uses graffiti as an expressive outlet for his frustration with the urban landscape he’s trapped in: “You tell me your city is only a maze/Of walls and laws you just can’t obey/You can’t write laws, and so you paint/That tattoo on the city arms, the city face.” Emma and Hannah’s background vocals nearly slay me hear, so angelic are the “Aaaaaaaah”s that pour from their mouths, like rays of sunshine on a once bleak landscape now filled with colorful murals.
Emma takes the lead again – both vocally and instrumentally, for a song with bass, synths, and drum programming that gives off such a breezy vibe, I can only assume it’s meant to give me flashbacks to the 80s. While it’s the most “synthetic” song on the disc and the one that took me the longest to appreciate, she pulls off a difficult balance between a superficially sweet melodic hook and a vocal performance that hints at a deep sense of loss and lost-ness underneath its seemingly casual exterior. Whoever Tereza is, Emma’s heart is flooded with memories of places they visited together all over Brazil, where she seems to have lost and found and lost this person all over again. She blames herself for the rift between them : “It was me, it was just my nature”. Since the band has backed off of the syncopation quite a bit on this one, it’s got this very straightforward, hit-every-quarter-note approach, but oddly enough, that ends up giving the guitar solo a perfectly relaxed, ocean breeze sort of vibe that lets a lot of fresh air into the song. (Or maybe they’ve just seeded that comparison in my mind by including the sound of the ocean at both ends of the track.)
4. Border Crosser
The sound of a train whistle both opens and closes this one – I’ve noticed that these guys like to bookend several of their songs with the same sound effects as a way of setting a scene. Here, the tempo’s a hair slower, and there’s this whistle melody that just oozes a sense of adventure – it’s part “wide open old West” and part “transcontinental European spy caper”. You can picture shadowy figures on a train, headed off to some unknown destination, as Keith writes to a distant lover, someone he’s trying to persuade to steal away with him and start over in some foreign land. He’s grown disillusioned with the actions of his “charcoal country”, and he seems to want a better life for both of them, though you have to wonder whether this character might have also done something that would make him a wanted man once it’s discovered back home. Though the main vocal hook here doesn’t have quite the same melodic punch as the other songs (it’s the whistling part that does that job), the call-and-response chorus vocal between Keith and Emma gives you a sense that you’re merely getting a brief glimpse at a much more epic story waiting to be told. There’s even a brief tag sung in German (as if these guys hadn’t shown off enough language skills already) as the last cars of the train pass the intersection and disappear over the horizon. This song ignites the wanderlust in me like nothing else.
5. Mtn Tune
The only band member I haven’t mentioned by name yet is drummer Ian Quirk (and what a perfect name!), whose drums, whether live or programmed, are the backbone of pretty much everything this band does. Here he goes all out, with a fast-paced, slinky worldbeat that ignites a whole musical party almost without warning. The notion of two people disappearing off into the wilderness together is explored here, in a song that could easily serve as the a counterpoint to the feel-good escapism in Of Monsters and Men‘s “Mountain Sound”. There’s some sort of manipulation going on here, an emotional tug-of-war between not wanting someone, but wanting to be wanted by them: “I told you to fall for me/Just to test the line”, and later, “It’d be better if I didn’t fall for you.” Once again, a shared lead vocal gives us a strong sense that the song represents two points of view in uneasy tension with each other. Since the wobbly guitar riffs and the fuzzy bass are so much fun, this leads to a huge conflict of emotions as I try to read the intended mood of the song. It’s a heck of a weird note for the EP to end on, especially since the band sounds like they’re only winding up at this point and could easily rip through five or ten more tracks of this. I’ll consider it a “side one finale” and wait eagerly for more.
Of course, if you really can’t hold out for a full-length album from these guys, there are a few earlier EPs by the band floating around out there, as well as a trio of one-off cover tunes they recorded last year that got some attention on the blogosphere: Miguel‘s “Sure Thing”, Miike Snow‘s “Animal”, and most amusingly, M83‘s “Midnight City” (which puts a questionable spin on the lead vocal, but does some pretty awesome things with the main hook and gleefully indulges in a tropical flute solo). There’s enough to pull together an imaginary album if you stretch your imagination. If these guys break through someday, it’ll be nice to say I found out about them before they even had a Wikipedia article. But I don’t want to be one of those snobs who thinks he’s cooler than you ’cause you’ve never heard of ’em. I’m looking forward to Trails and Ways catching on, hopefully in a big enough way that they’ll crop up in more than just random corners of the net, but also a modest enough way to keep them humble and creative.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Como Te Vas $1.75
Border Crosser $2
Mtn Tune $1.75
Emma Oppen: Lead vocals, bass
Keith Brower Brown: Lead vocals, rhythm guitar, keyboards
Ian Quirk: Drums, backing vocals
Hannah Van Loon: Lead guitar, keyboards, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: