Trails and Ways – Pathology: NorCal Meets South America

2015_TrailsandWays_PathologyArtist: Trails and Ways
Album: Pathology
Year: 2015
Grade: B+

In Brief: The retro/urban/South American take on indie pop that won me over on the Trilingual EP is alive and well on the band’s first full-length LP, with a few of that EP’s highlights reprised (and one radically reimagined) here. The new songs largely follow suit, though most of them are in a mellower vein, causing the group’s otherwise addictive sound to run a little closer to the middle of the road than I was hoping for at times. Still, this is a sunny summer record with a strong south-of-the-equator flavor, and I love it for that.

I gushed an awful lot about Trails and Ways the first few times I reviewed their work, for a band that only had a handful of EPs to show for their years of existence thus far. What can I say? When you’ve got a collection of five songs as euphorically addictive as those found on their Trilingual EP, where each one whisks you away to a place and time far across the globe with its kaleidoscope of bright synths and peppy guitar riffs and summery background vocals and foreign language lyrics, it’s hard not to get irrationally excited for what might come next. It’s been a long wait since I first discovered the band in 2012, but they’ve finally dropped a full-length LP called Pathology, just in time for the long hot summer over which it was clearly meant to be enjoyed.

What we get here is pretty much exactly what I’d expect: A few of the most iconic songs from Trilingual reappear to help anchor the new album (though one is strangely disguised as a different song with a different person singing lead, oddly enough), while a few new singles in that same vein get top billing at the very beginning of the record, making sure that new listeners are hit hard and fast with the Trails and Ways sound, which is an amalgamation of the nervous, jittery guitars of indie rock, the funky bass lines and soothing melodic sensibilities of 70s-era pop music, a little bit of Bossa Nova and other Brazilian/South American influence, and open-ended lyrics that might be a lot wittier and/or more political than you’d expect when you’re just superficially bobbing your head to all of the aforementioned sounds. Two male and two female band members, all of which sing lead on at least one track, conspire to bury each and every hook in your brain. I knew to anticipate all of that from the get-go. What I was curious about was how they’d handle the slower/mellower material that usually has to show up at some point between all the upbeat singles clamoring for music blog embeds and retweets and such. Trilingual never dipped below groovy mid-tempo, and I’d still only characterize one or two tracks here as truly “mellow”, and those are still highlights, surprisingly enough. The only thing that troubles me is that a few of the newer tracks later in the album just sort of float on by without making as musically distinctive of a mark as their predecessors. I’d hate to ever call Trails and Ways “middle of the road” because they’re clearly dedicated to doing something that can’t easily be pinned down to a single genre or “scene”, but this album definitely doesn’t end as thrillingly as it begins.

Regarding lyrics, the title Pathology hints at something deeper than you might expect from the brightly-colored music, and sure enough, there’s talk of climate change and urban blight and feeling like a foreigner in your own homeland here, mostly in the songs penned by rhythm guitarist Keith Brower Brown, who is the band’s de facto lead singer in the sense that he’s the one in front of the mic most often. Bassist Emma Oppen is the runner-up in that department, though I have difficulty telling her vocals apart from those of lead guitarist Hannah van Loon, who according to the liner notes only sings a true lead vocal on one track. Drummer Ian Quirk rounds out the lineup with one of his own contributions late in the album – and I can always respect a band in which everyone not only sings, but has some lyrical input, because the democratic creative process seems to bring the best out of everyone. There are a few times where I think a little more collaboration in the form of letting multiple members trade off vocals or take a song in a different direction instrumentally might have helped one or two of the tracks that seem more like “filler” compared to the high bar that the band’s best songs have already set for them, but that’s a minor issue. Overall, this is a strong debut and it’s refreshing to hear a band finally “make it”, at least in the sense of getting a full-length album under their belt with a stable indie label (in this case, Seattle-based Barsuk Records) supporting them. Hopefully the weird and twisty grapevine of review sites and blogs and streaming services by which people discover good music on the Internet these days will be kind to these kids from Oakland and maybe, just maybe, give them a shot at the wider audience I think they clearly deserve.

INDIVIDUAL TRACKS:

1. Skeletons
Pretty much everything that I loved about Trilingual is present in the first new single that the band has to offer on this LP – the nervous energy of the guitar riffs, the synthetic drum beats that still have that aura of live energy to them, the funky syncopation, the exuberant background vocals (in this case a sharp little “oooh-WAH!”), and the general feeling of being transported to a different place and time. Strong emphasis on the “time” in this case, because the song came from a bizarre dream Keith had in which he was dancing at a club with Drake (who thankfully doesn’t appear to have influenced the actual recording of the song in any way), and then his vision flashed forward to centuries later, when the Earth had been laid to waste and the buildings were all shattered ruins, yet there were still “skeletons dancing at the scene of the crime”. You could take it as wacky surrealism, or you could take it as commentary on mankind doing the modern equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns. Either way, hell of a song to start with.
Grade: A+

2. Say You Will
The first of Emma’s new contributions has more of a chilled-out, mid-tempo vibe to it, with lots of bells and sweet four-part harmonies and even a sampled heartbeat to accent its snappy rhythm. Her lyrical approach tends to be more simple and straightforward than Keith’s, so this song is fairly easy to decode: She’s been waiting around for some dude to make up his mind, and she’s not getting any younger, so he needs to put up or shut up. “Say you will, or don’t say anything at all”, is how she much more politely puts it in the chorus, which gets a bit of a 70s disco groove sort of thing going, as if someone had slowed down the bass line from “Stayin’ Alive”. If they get around to making a video for this one, I sure hope someone’s rockin’ a pair of bell-bottoms in it.
Grade: A

3. Mtn Tune
The final track from Trilingual is the first to resurface here, with its joyously rocky percussion and its ramshackle, fast-paced groove. It’s quite literally a song about rock climbing and having to trust the person belaying you, but of course there’s some subtext to the lyrics about admiring that person’s strength and falling for them just to test the line and so forth. Keith and Emma sing it as a duet, which is way less schmaltzy in execution due to the fast-paced nature of it than you might expect on paper. The recording is mostly the same as it was before; they remastered it slightly to bring the booming bass down several notches and emphasize the acoustic guitar a bit more. I might prefer the original by a hair just because I loved how the bass went into the red on that one, but the differences are so minute that most people would never notice.
Grade: A+

4. Jacaranda
The urban pop vibe I get from this one (complete with the brief sound of a siren to open it up) reminds me so much of “Nunca” that I’m a bit baffled as to why it doesn’t follow “Nunca” on the record; it would make a pretty great segue. (Skip forward a few tracks for my thoughts on that song and then come back if you have no idea what I’m talking about.) It’s a slight bit more relaxed than that song, but it’s got the same sort of “wiggly” guitar riff, soothing BGV’s, and even a similar mood to Keith’s lyrics, which are about absconding from the humdrum of daily life to some secret place. In this case, he’s urging a woman named “Kira”, who seems to be a bit depressed, to climb down the tree outside her window (that’s where the title comes in, “Jacaranda” being a tropical plant with brilliant purple flowers) and escape with him. one obvious difference is that the entire song’s in English, I guess. I do enjoy this one (and the trippy Adjustment Bureau vibe of the music video certainly adds some dimension to it), but it seems destined to live in the shadows of the song it’s so clearly modeled after.
Grade: B+

5. Heavy Sleeper
I find it interesting that Hannah and Ian both get to sing lead on one track each, and their compositions both heavily feature the other person’s instrument more so than their own. Hannah’s up first, and her song is appropriately dreamy given its title – possibly the most laid-back track on the entire album. While her guitar accents the wistful melody of the song quite nicely, Ian and Emma are really the stars of the show here, letting loose with a pretty deep bass and percussion jam in the song’s chorus, which is where Hannah and guest vocalist Sandra L-Ndu (yeah, no idea how you pronounce that) take a really interesting melodic turn as well. It turns the song from something merely pretty into something attention-grabbing that you won’t see coming.
Grade: A

6. Nunca
Ah yes, the esteemed “Nunca”. It’s pretty much the band’s signature sound at this point, because it tells you everything you need to know about them in just a few bars – they really love Brazilian culture and the Portuguese language, they have killer vocal harmonies, and they know how to crank up the sort of rhythmic groove that you can imagine blasting from a boombox back in the days when breakdancing was a big thing. I loved it on first listen, and I still haven’t tired of it, so I’m glad to see it show up here in pretty much the exact same form as it did on Trilingual, even if its placement at the album’s midpoint is a bit perplexing. Go look this one up ASAP if you’ve never heard of the band and need a good place to start.
Grade: A+

7. Downright
I like the syncopated piano that drives this one; it’s almost like they’re going for more of an urban/R&B sort of vibe, and guest vocalist Harriet Brown certainly helps with that, her voice a smoky contrast to Keith’s “soft-spoken indie rocker” tone. There’s a bit of a protest vibe to this one – or at least there would be if I could figure out what sort of actions the ubiquitous “they” are guilty of that the chorus declares to be “downright unconscionable”. Whatever oppression this song’s protagonists face, it’s driven them underground, where they can be with others of their kind and try to spread the word and stop the hate, grass-roots style. Keith seems to wonder in the second verse whether his actions have any impact: “Yeah, you know me/The printing press with no circulation/A club PA without a low end/Can you hear me out there?” I’m not 100% certain what that implies, but I love the way he phrased it.
Grade: B

8. Defined
Emma steps back up to the mic for one of those songs that has all of the colorful character I’d expect from Trails and Ways, and yet it seems rather perfunctory, almost as if they could have rehashed their default sound in their sleep. I mean no discredit to her as a vocalist or anyone in the band as a performer, because the sound is crisp and clear and the song is superficially catchy. But her lyrics are so vague that I honestly can’t tell what’s driving the conflict she’s singing about, and her melody just sort of lazily loops back upon itself. I’ll take their filler over most other bands’ filler… but it’s still filler at the end of the day, which bothers me when I consider how the other two phenomenal songs from Trilingual, “Como Te Vas” and “Border Crosser”, didn’t make the cut for this LP.
Grade: C+

9. Terezinha
The third and final song from Trilingual makes its reappearance here, but unlike the other two songs that were just slightly remastered, this one’s been completely re-recorded from the ground up – and they gave it the full Brazilian treatment this time around. (Ugh, that makes it sound like it got a bikini wax. Erase that image from your mind if it’s at all possible.) What started as “Tereza”, a beautiful song of lost friendship and/or love as well as the hope for eventual reconciliation sung by Emma, with a strong 80s vibe and killer bass line to match, has now gone the acoustic route, with its lyrics translated into Portuguese and sung by Keith. I guess he had originally written it, so it makes sense, but since he gets the lion’s share of the lead vocals on this album, I wouldn’t have minded another Emma track. In any case, I do enjoy the Latin jazz club, “Girl From Ipanema” sort of vibe of the first verse before the drums and strings kick in, and all told, it’s still quite a lovely song in any format, but I was so strongly attached to Emma’s take on it that it’s a bit difficult to adjust. Personally, I’d have kept the original as part of the album’s track listing and then featured the Portuguese version as a bonus track.
Grade: B+

10. Dream About Me
At long last, it’s Ian’s turn! I don’t think he had any lead vocals on Trilingual, and while I think he and Emma might have shared the mic on their cover of Ghost Beach‘s “Miracle”, this is definitely the first time I’ve heard him front a song all by himself. He’s come up with what I’d consider to be the most “beach-y” song of the bunch, in the sense that its brightly ascending guitar riffs and its tropical-styled percussion immediately whisk me away to the the liveliest strip of sand that Rio de Janeiro has to offer. It seems to be the backdrop for a simple love song, but as he ponders, “Do you dream about me?/Or just the things you shouldn’t see?”, and especially in the verses where he expresses concern for his lover sleeping soundly through the night and “choking on memories that haven’t yet been put to rest”, there’s a hint of much more going on beneath the surface, as if he’s just rescued her from an abusive lover or some other sort of trauma. His hopes and fears are almost fatherly, in a sense. If that’s the case, I like how the heavier subject matter plays against the sunny music, but the song does seem to stall out a bit by the bridge, not knowing where else to go beyond its basic riffs and chord structure. It’s a potentially meaty idea for a song with an disappointingly undercooked center.
Grade: B

11. Vines
Speaking of disappointment, I can’t help but be a bit underwhelmed by the closing track, which has some of Keith’s most intriguingly introspective lyrics, but musically, it begs to be noticed the least out of any track on the album, just sort of shrugging its shoulders as it casually shuffles on by. He’s mourning a loss of some sort, perhaps a lover who’s had to return to some small Brazilian town that he considers a paradise while he’s stuck back in boring old California, and her memory seems to loom over his heart like vines slowly scaling the hull of an old, rusty ship. The first verse alone is evidence that he’s got some solid poetry here, and I love the Radiohead reference: “All I’ve ever carried is commodities/My parents’ silverware, Thom’s plastic trees/Some records of good taste, some heavy crude/Lots of future artifacts, and here’s some old news.” Maybe this deserved more of a somber mood instead of the outsized, harmonious and happy sheen the band layers on top of most of their songs. Whatever the case, it just needs to stand out more.
Grade: C+

WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Skeletons $2
Say You Will $1.75
Mtn Tune $2
Jacaranda $1.25
Heavy Sleeper $1.75
Nunca $2
Downright $1
Defined $.50
Terezinha $1.25
Dream About Me $1
Vines $.50
TOTAL: $15

BAND MEMBERS:
Keith Brower Brown: Vocals, rhythm guitar, synths
Emma Oppen: Vocals, bass
Ian Quirk: Vocals, drums
Hannah van Loon: Vocals, lead guitar, synths

LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
https://open.spotify.com/album/5SD0Wiv87icSCll6pxhbFz

MORE USEFUL LINKS:
http://hiketrailsandways.tumblr.com/
https://www.facebook.com/TRAILSANDWAYS

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