Thursday, April 22, 2010

A Little Bit Louder Now

Songs for Staying In [EP]
Quiet Company

When first I crossed paths with Austin's lovelorn power-pop Quiet Company, I wasn't overwhelmed -- too much of an OK thing, really, with the band's gift for melody and well-balanced live sound overshadowed by their tendency to say the same thing in the same way with song after song. Even after a boring show, though, I wasn't ready to strike them from memory. Quiet Company is a band to whom musicians in Austin should pay attention. They have visual and musical signatures, and they have a nuanced way of promoting their work relentlessly without seeming obnoxious. Like it or not success finding an audience in music nowadays is to a large extent dependent on branding, and Quiet Company have followed their creative inclinations intelligently and made their shows something of a couples activity. They're so into love they'll even find you a partner though their (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) dating service, if you don't already have one with whom to sing along at their shows. Their last album funded itself in part with custom songs commissioned by newlyweds.

If you're cynical, you could observe that by associating their music so closely with romance the band has cut off the critic at the path -- if you don't like Quiet Company, you must hate love! Well played. I had to work hard to approach their music with objective ears. Very, very sincere rock and roll music is so rare that it's hard to distinguish between basic ideas expressed elegantly and the merely simplistic. Given their record of success and universally positive notices from everyone who's ever felt moved to write about them, Quiet Company had earned better than a one-show snap judgement from the likes of me. And even if I was absolutely right about them then, what if they got better?

Quiet Company's overloaded last full-length, Everyone You Love Will Be Happy Soon, made a mixed case. Leader Taylor Muse has a name out of Dickens, a voice borrowed from Barsuk Records, and an undeniable gift for matching turn of phrase to melody. Everyone You Love bore some fine songs, but blunted their impact by overcrowding the running order with similar, less effective applications of the same formula. The standouts were the outliers, like the ballad "Red and Gold," where songwriter and band were challenged to find ways to play confidently out of their comfort zone.

Songs for Staying In is a quantum leap forward. It begins with a song in "How Do You Do It?" that effectively summarizes all that was already good about the band, energetic gang vocals leading into a massive sticky chorus that piles on additional lovely melodies from keyboards, guitars, and horns in a long, inclusive outro. With its bashfully straightforward lyrics, Quiet Company are starting out in familiar territory. But both "How Do You Do It?" and its EP companion "Things You Already Know" show maturation, with the band more fully involved in the development of the songs instead of merely following the singer and extended arrangements that don't grow boring because new additions are aways entering in over the repeated chords and melodies.

Then they start tearing up the map and things get really interesting. "Hold My Head Above the Water" has an unfinished, minimal quality to it that suits the plaintive melody (and the out-of-key but undeniably romantic duet vocals). It's not a major piece of work but it indicates that the band is beginning to explore different approaches -- love can sound like a lot of things. After that the record grows in maturity level quickly. The stark, powerful "Jezebel" is the best thing they've ever recorded, with a suddenly tough band giving way to a poignant Muse begging "come back to me" over a stately piano melody. This is heavy stuff, with the band evoking big emotions; they show rather than tell. "If You Want" is a jaunty waltz that finds a place for accordion in the Quiet Company sound and a novel melody that seems invigorated by the oom-pah-pah rhythms. "The Biblical Sense of the Word" brings in barrelhouse piano and, unexpectedly, exciting and aggressive guitar work. These last three songs are almost overstuffed with ideas, to the extent that the vocals can get a little lost.

Songs for Staying In, particularly the electric second half, cinches Quiet Company's reputation as one of Austin's leading lights. They have room to grow still. They have a tendency to end every song with many repetitions of the chorus, a device that loses its effectiveness when it's overindulged. I also think they could challenge themselves further when it comes to lyrics. Muse's writing isn't poor, exactly, just extremely universal, sometimes to the point of being generic ("I'm in love with you, body and soul") and I would respond to more personal details in the words. They also could try writing a few songs about subjects besides love, just to see what it feels like. The EP does a good job of linking the songs together by theme, which gives Quiet Company the license to try some wilder musical ideas. Having expanded the possibilities for their music, I'd like to hear their next brace of songs open up the lyrics to some new ideas.

Quiet Company's website offers a bunch of treats having to do with the release of the new EP, including videos with the band discussing the making of each track. (The "Jezebel" video will make you want to listen to the song again so you can keep your ears peeled for unusual drum fills.) They do right by their fans! You can pre-order Songs for Staying In there and get a digital download before the "official" release date of May 11. On May 7th they're playing with STEREO IS A LIE and The Eastern Sea at Encore.

1 comment:

  1. Pretty spot on with the advice I'd say. I also prefer a slightly rawer feel to the production, rather than perfectly slick and smooth...I think that would help with the vocals getting lost issue.

    Great job!