There’s much more of interest here than implied by the drab sepia of the cover to this debut 6 track EP from this college band from Scranton Pennsylvania. It’s the kind of mundane study in which American photographer Minor Martin White, from whom the band took their name, specialised. The Minor White sound is anything but mundane. The two pairs of brothers, plus one, have been together in various forms since high school up the road in their hometown of Clarks Summit. That’s the kind of rural community that, at least from this side of the Atlantic, summons up images of Americana: white picket fences, front porches, maybe a bit of backwoods strangeness lurking in the shadows. Who knows, but vocalist Roy Williams has been a member of a bluegrass band, and there’s a dash of alt-country in the rich mix of styles, skills and influences this group of multi-instrumentalists have going on in their own creative melting pot. The Beatles, Elliot Smith, Dylan, Radiohead, and Wilco are all acknowledged. As that list implies, and as it’s easy to hear, the song is the thing – structure, melody, harmony, variety. If you want a hazy visual – think Midlake fronted by Colin Meloy. Earlier efforts freely downloadable at www.purevolume.com see them developing their own character in songs that blend the soft rock of Midlake, the guilty pleasures pop of The Feeling, and the sonic exploration of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. They sound like a work in progress – a close knit group of friends with grand ideas finding their feet and developing their song craft. This EP sees that effort starting to bear fruit with a distinct energy and flowing complexity of their own.
A Change In Season is driven by a jarring piano deliberately slightly off key, with harmonising vocals to match. At first listen it’s a bit off putting, but it grows on you. Beatlesesque piano (and indeed Strawberry fields mellotron) is a repeated feature of their sound, as are understated brotherly vocal harmonies. Lead vocalist Roy Williams has said that he’s very self conscious about names, and The Ditty never got renamed from its working title. It’s all fuzzy guitar over a George Harrison out-take, drifting in and out of feedback and fairground waltz segments. Static Redbeard is straight ahead alt-country and the strongest stand alone track of the collection. A single violin picks out the lead and it features some Andrew Bird style whistling after a delightful piano twist in the melody, all the while underpinned by a subdued beat – it could be a smiling acoustic Arcade Fire being careful not to upset the next door neighbours at band practise. The tempo dips with the more desperate emotions of Moonrag before being stirred up again by the piano backbone of the title track, which branches into speakeasy jazz and sonic landscapes in what becomes a characteristically Minor White tour de force of a musical collage. The dreamy So Oklahoma (that mellotron sound again) brings the curtain down, though the reedy vocals fight against that mood in what is the weakest track.
There are only two things to criticise about this EP. First, it’s not an album – these atmospheric and beautifully composed songs would benefit from a home in an extended setting to allow the listener to stay in the zone and enjoy the mood for longer – assuming there were more tracks of the same quality. Second, on occasion Roy Williams’ vocals are stretched a bit thin – everything else sounds so polished and in the right place. But then that never stopped Thom Yorke or Ray Davies – maybe all that is required is a bit more confidence. This could be a definite ‘you heard of them here first’ moment. One to watch.