Artist: Trails and Ways
Album: Own It
In Brief: The sunny, catchy indie pop vibe is still there, but the shared lead vocals, strong harmonies, and smatterings of Portuguese lyrics are pretty much a thing of the past. That makes it a lot harder for Trails and Ways to stand out among the crowd, when they once did so effortlessly.
I hate to be that guy who acts like a band will never be as good again after founding members leave, than they were with their membership intact. It’s almost inevitable that this will happen to most bands over time, especially when multiple members are important to the creative process. Either they split over creative differences, or someone gets the itch to go solo because the band can’t give them airtime for the wealth of songs coming out of them, or they’re just sick of the touring grind, etc. Often times it’s really not the band’s fault and you can’t blame the remaining members for trying to solider on. But I can’t help but notice when it leads to a change in their sound. And the departure of two key members, tragically, has caused the indie band Trails and Ways to lose a few of the elements that made their sound so distinctive.
The key ingredient that got me so enamored with the band in the first place was how all four of the members would switch around lead vocals, which was readily apparent since the first time I ever heard their music was in a live setting, where you can’t not notice that someone different is taking the mic for a few songs here and there. Keith Browser Brown was, and is, the de facto leader of the band, but with bassist and co-write Emma Oppen by his side, and drummer Ian Quirk and guitarist Hannah van Loon also contributing their own songs and a rich array of backing vocals, the songs just spilled over with a rich, infectious, nostalgic sort of energy. They seemed destined for great things after the release of their first full-length album, Pathology, just last year, but the touring got to be too much for the two ladies, and they split. The female vocals, whether lead or backing, added so much dimension to their sound that it was hard for me to imagine the two guys continuing on without them when I first heard the news. Wisely, they’ve recruited touring members to fill those roles, presumably so that they can continue to play their old material. But the absence of the ladies’ input as songwriters – especially Emma’s – makes the band’s new album, Own It, feel a lot less like a conversation or a celebration than much of Pathology did. While still very upbeat, it’s a much more introspective record, dominated by Keith’s vocals and lyrical ideas, and these new songs aren’t bad, but it definitely feels like a bit of the wind has been taken from their sails. The bits of foreign language that also helped their music to stand apart from the crowd on past releases are completely gone, and in several cases the vocals are mixed so low that I have trouble distinguishing what the songs are about. While there were a few lesser songs on the back half of Pathology that didn’t really float my boat, I still felt like the track listing was diverse and I didn’t lose focus from one track to the next. On Own It, despite its 11 songs flying by rather quickly, really paying attention gets harder and harder as it gets into that home stretch. This record feels like it was rushed and a lot of the tracks feel very middle-of-the-road in comparison to their old sound. It’s still a pretty good indie pop record, but not the type of thing I’d expect to really get my attention if these new songs were my first exposure to the band.
Trails and Ways decided to go the crowd-funded route for this release, cutting ties from the label that launched their full-length debut and declaring Own It to be an “anti-capitalist” album. If something sounds wrong with that picture to you – asking folks for money while insinuating that there’s something wrong with having money – then you’re not alone. It’s a weird premise for a band making art in a climate where, no matter how you slice it, somebody’s got to pay for that art to be recorded and distributed. Doing it completely outside the conventional label machine is admirable, and in a few places where the lyrics challenge how our identity can get wrapped up in the stuff we own, that’s admirable too. But the “anti-capitalist” descriptor could be misinterpreted in ways that might alienate potential listeners, so I’m not 100% sure where they were going with that one. Perhaps I’d have a stronger sense of the overall message if they’d actually, y’know, emphasized the vocals in a way that got more of these tracks stuck in my head for reasons beyond the superficial “It has a fun beat and melody”. I suppose some things are forgivable on a shoestring budget, but deciding what should be loudest in the mix doesn’t radically alter the cost of making a record, does it? Just sayin’.
Long story short, if you’re looking for something with the frenetic, danceable rhythm of “Nunca” or “Mtn Tune”, or the international intrigue of “Tereza” or “Border Crosser”, you’re probably out of luck on this one, but if the more introspective pieces like “Downright” or “Vines” were up your alley, this record might hit home for you better than it did for me. Either way, I’d recommend starting with Pathology and the Trilingual EP if you’re new to this band, then follow up with this one once you’re all caught up.
1. Get Loud
This song had a really unfair amount of weight to bear, being the kick-off track on this album and being one of my first tastes of the new, slimmed-down band lineup. Everything about it would be appealing if I knew nothing about Trails and Ways beforehand – the meaty bass licks, straight-ahead drum beat and scruffy guitar chords all represent some of the things that typically draw me to an indie rock band, and it isn’t until midway through that I hear the cleaner, more fluid electric guitar and think that I miss the old Trails and Ways, where that sound was more prominent and the songs felt more vivacious because of it. Still, there’s plenty of motion to get caught up in here, and when you look beneath the surface, Keith’s lyrics are as clever as they’ve always been: “I love support groups/I like attention cheap/Could you make selflessness/Feel easier for me?” It’s the right start for an album like this, as he’s addressing his own tendency to want an easy way out first and foremost before trying to call anyone else out. The battle between using faux-sensitivity to make something that sounds emotionally appealing and digging deeper within himself to bring out the real, difficult but true art is readily apparent in these lyrics. Unfortunately, as in much of this album, his soft-spoken delivery leaves a bit to be desired, and the backing vocals that come in simply don’t seem as powerful as they did on past singles like “Skeletons” or “Jacaranda”. So this is a strong start if you know nothing about the band, but given what they’ve accomplished in the past, it feels like a slight step down.
Now as much as I miss Emma – who probably would have taken the lead vocal on a breezy, uptempo song such as this one – I do have to say that the band still made it priority to include engaging bass lines on a lot of these songs, and this one is a great example of that. The rhythm section is heavily favored here, especially in the lead-up from the verse to the chorus, where the drum kit fades out as handclaps and finger snaps take over, which gives the chorus a bit more punch when it kicks in. The female backing vocals are a little more prominent here, still not quite achieving the heavenly glow they gave off in a lot of the band’s older songs, but at least making a solid attempt. Keith’s lyrics about happiness being a choice and risk you take, rather than something that just magically happens to you, set up an intriguing premise, but the melody he’s chosen for them, along with the vocal delivery, never really evoke much excitement. The band’s got a solid groove going on here, but they never really bring it to a boil.
3. How Do I Turn
Acoustic guitar takes the lead in this mellower, but still groove-based track, dovetailing nicely with the bass in a way that almost evokes the south-of-the-equator indie pop style they had initially caught my attention with. For all of my complaints about the female vocals not being as prominent on this record, whoever they brought to fill in for their departed members does an admirable job in her duet with Keith here, coming through with her simple refrain of “Do I wanna know what it will take?” He seems to be wondering how he can let go of his attachment to his physical belongings (which nicely foreshadows the lead single coming up a few tracks later), but there’s a bit of a fear implied in going down that rabbit hole. It’s a beautifully performed little song, but it wraps up a little bit too soon – a problem on several tracks throughout the album, which makes it feel like they came up a bit short on content at times.
4. Coral Bleach
I like the darker mood here, with the moodier acoustic guitar chords, the bass and the ominous “hovering” effect of the electric guitar. But the vocal melody seems a bit repetitive, and this is one of the least attention-grabbing tracks in terms of the amount of energy Keith puts into his vocal delivery. He seems like he’s nearly whispering or half-asleep at times, which makes me disinclined to take interest in what he’s singing about, even if once again there are some intriguing lyrical snippets (particularly in the chorus, which rhymes “like the bleach on the coral” with “a book with no moral”). At two and a half minutes, the song seems to get bored of its own mid-tempo groove before it can really develop it into much of anything beyond how it started.
5. My Things
Now if you’re gonna make lean and mean indie pop songs, this is the way to do it. Much like “Get Loud”, this one takes a straight ahead drum beat and a prominent lead guitar melody and works simple magic with them. The speedier lyrical delivery in the verses really helps – there honestly aren’t a ton of lyrics here, but I like the specificity with which Keith rattles through his possessions, some of which are vintage musical equipment, leading up to the very simple confession, “I don’t wanna live without my things”. They’re not just there for sentimental reasons or conspicuous consumption, after all – they’re part of his identity as an artist. But after a while, do all the boxes stacked up in storage and the hassle of moving from place to place make these things more of a liability than a benefit? No easy answers are offered here, but a catchy chorus definitely is, making this the standout track of the album and a great pick for its first single.
6. Pure Blues
Much like “How Do I Turn”, I can appreciate what they’re going for with the laid-back acoustic vibe, but the song doesn’t quite seem to hit the sweet spot that it’s aiming for. This one’s even more sparse, really just plucking out some simple notes on the guitar to a laid-back beat, which gives it more of a coffeehouse vibe, and I think there’s a clarinet or some other woodwind instrument softly humming in the background – for all I know it’s just a keyboard effect. Either way I wish they had done more with it. This song references life in “this dry California” and expresses a thirst for something being a dull, dry life, but once again an underwhelming vocal delivery works against it. The chorus is basically dead on arrival. I know it’s supposed to sound weary and disinterested, but it needs a little more something to avoid inducing apathy in its audience.
There’s also a bit of a moody, minor-key vibe going on here, but the band pulls together a more intriguing combination of rhythmic groove and laid-back vocal ambiance here, giving the song a nervous energy that’s hard to describe. The more conversational aspect of a song like “How Do I Turn” is apparent here, which I think is a good thing, but in the call-and-response between Keith and the female vocalist, some of what’s being said is once again lost in the half-hearted vocal delivery. Spotify actually had the “Explicit” tag on this one for reasons I couldn’t identify, until I finally looked up the lyrics, and realized that in the wash of drawn-out backing vocals in the chorus, they were actually saying “Can’t you chill the f*ck out?” Those vocals are so chilled out that the lyrics completely lose their impact. As is Keith’s response of “Sure, I’ll try.” Despite the elements here that reminds me of the reasons I fell in love with the band, I still end up feeling like the song is a pale reflection of their former glory.
This song is dedicated to science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin – a fact that I’m only aware of after reading the lyrics on Bandcamp. What’s actually expressed in the song is generic enough that, aside from the name, the lyrics could well be about nearly anyone who needs inspiration to feel more satisfied, like they’re achieving their full potential in life. I’m normally drawn to the more up-tempo tracks on an album like this one, and sure it’s a fun little workout that once again brims over with a fun rhythm section and a glowing lead guitar melody. But it all breezes by in such a short amount of time that the song leaves very little impact. Especially due to how far back Keith’s wispy vocals ended up in the mix, this practically could have been an instrumental and I might not have even noticed the difference.
Thanks to the more prominent keyboard effects and drum programming here, as well as the slick, handclap-heavy groove, this highly danceable song ends up being one of the standouts on an album that otherwise feels like it’s in a rush to just be over already. We’re still struggling with short song lengths working against the ability of most individual songs to truly stand out, but despite coming in under the three minute mark like literally more than half the album does, the band manages to sink in some really solid vocal and instrumental hooks, and to show some genuine confidence in doing so. They’re singing about trusting your own instincts and ability to make smart-decisions here, and it’s not exactly groundbreaking subject matter, but they totally sound like they’re practicing what they’re preaching as they perform the songs, and that’s a stark difference from the rather meek songs that surround it.
10. Bent Glass
I hate to sound like a broken record, but I’m getting more and more apathetic as this record winds down and I’m discovering even more short tracks that don’t seem to be trying to do much beyond a vaguely pleasant mid-tempo groove. More wispy, nearly-whispered vocals from Keith only serve to remind me how much stronger this band was when different voices could trade off from one song to the next. He just doesn’t sound confident enough to anchor this band all by his lonesome, no matter how much he may try to flesh it out with light, airy female vocals in the background. For such a short song, each word and each note of this one seems to drag out interminably, and it’s not like this band ever does anything super low-tempo. I’m just annoyed with the lack of versatility when I know the band is capable of really changing things up when they want to.
11. The Answer
This song is literally about two minutes of bass groove with two repeating lines of lyrics, not much in the way of development, and every reason for the listener to have totally tuned out by this point. At this point I’m longing for something with even the complexity of “Vines”, the closing track on Pathology that happened to be my least favorite on that album. This song didn’t even register with me on the first few listens, aside from my surprise when there was only silence to follow its final wisps of pleasant but meaningless background harmony. “Hmmm, that’s it?” was, and still is, my only real reaction.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Get Loud $1.50
How Do I Turn $1
Coral Bleach $.50
My Things $1.75
Pure Blues $.50
Bent Glass $.25
The Answer $0
Keith Brower Brown: Lead vocals, guitar, keyboard
Ian Quirk: Drums, percussion, backing vocals
Miriam Speyer: Bass, backing vocals (tour only)
Alycia Lang: Lead guitar, synths, backing vocals (tour only)
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: