Saturday, September 19, 2009

Ticket to Ryde

Isle of White EP
Isle of White

At a certain point during this five-track debut, the listener has to decide for himself whether he's having as much fun listening as this slightly tongue-in-cheek power pop quartet has playing. It might be the barrage of finger-tapped metal guitar triplets that arrives like a needed electric shock during the otherwise slightly dreary power ballad "Far Away," or the Def Leppard harmonized shredding section on the mostly Weezer-indebted "It'll Be Tonight." What's as clear as the handclaps on the winning opener "Jen Young" is that the band was totally prepared to make a record, as the well-thought out arrangements on all the songs suggest.

Rock music is an obviously cyclical thing. As Big Star and Todd Rundgren arrived as a response to the impenetrable prog-rock supergroups of the 70's, R.E.M. and the Replacements emerged as an alternative to early-80's punk's dogmatic anti-musicality. When Nirvana and grunge threatened to push three-part harmonies and relative minors out of rock entirely, Weezer and their acolytes were there to keep the power-pop torches alight. With technical precision and songwriting craftsmanship as undervalued today as they've been in many years, Isle of White are fighting a noble battle. With this EP they're off to a promising start, with a clear focus on playing as a group rather than highlighting the singer or the guitarists. The strong harmonies are also well-recorded and performed.

Making music that sounds simple but doesn't get boring is quite difficult, perhaps more so than mastering a more overtly technical style. Each song on this EP demonstrates that these songs have been worked on and perfected: a snatch of two or four bars will slow in tempo for dramatic effect, a repeated verse motif will have a slightly different drum pattern each time, or the whole band will rev up together to signal the listener that a big chorus or exciting solo is around the corner. When the anthemic chorus of "Nicholas and Alexandria" arrives, it doesn't feel as if the band is reinventing the wheel with three chords, but it doesn't sound less than fresh either, because the interlocking guitars of the verses show Isle of White's more elliptical side off as well. In short, they earn the right to be broad and obvious at times thanks to their careful and subtle attention to little details elsewhere.

Some room for improvement remains. The lyrics are hardly poor nor uncharacteristic for the genre, but they do fixate unvaryingly on lost love in an occasionally self-pitying and precious manner. Neither the guitars nor the drums, due to the limitations of the recording much more so than the arrangements or the playing, are quite as massive and universal as the songwriting needs them to be. The bass is a bit of a sore point, as it's not nearly confident or loud enough, lags behind the beat more often than not, and lacks much in the way of melodic development. Past the slower, Smiths-ish "Won't You Tell Me," the songs are all of a piece. There is one partial exception: "Nicholas and Alexandria" has a plaintive electric piano coda that might be my favorite piece of music on the whole EP.

You can see Isle of White in October at Beerland (Thursday the 8th) or the Beauty Bar (Tuesday the 29th) and get the EP from iTunes.

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