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"Where The Wild Are EP"

Release date: 14 April 2014
Southern – Where The Wild Are EP
10 April 2014, 16:30 Written by Chad Jewett

As an evocative ten minutes of folk-worn mood music, Southern’s new EP, Where The Wild Are, is largely successful. The trick for Southern seems to lie in keeping their mix of Delta slide-guitar blues, low-key garage rock, and broad Americana melodicism out of the realm of pastiche. When the Belfast duo, who go by Lucy and Thom Southern, manage to bend all of the genre signifiers with which they play – stuff that has been around for a century – into something that sounds like theirs, there’s a spark of energy to the EP. The problem lies in the sheer difficulty of that task in an era that has seen the aesthetic and aura of southern blues-and-roll wrung out from every conceivable angle. Southern have essentially given themselves the unenviable task of trying to find new territory in exhaustively mapped ground.

The EP’s title track is a synecdoche for all of this, beginning with an amiable, handclapped bit of Springsteen-and-Petty romping, laced with bourbon-rich slide guitar, before bursting into a more anonymous garage rock rave-up. Where the song’s introduction at least made up for its obvious touchstones with sheer energy and aplomb, the majority of “Where The Wild Are” plays with the more inert, whispered retro cool of the early 2000’s Neo Garage boom, a register that frankly isn’t as interesting as the glimpsed bit of repurposed pop blues that starts the song. Whenever “Where The Wild Are” returns to the swing of its introduction, it’s a thrill; otherwise, it feels oddly featureless, something that would soundtrack an ad for an affordable mid-sized sedan with little conflict. Indeed, it’s a song that’s quite good at offering a highly digested version of Americana pop danger, but it doesn’t tell us much about Southern.

Better is “Oh Won’t You Go,” a slow-burning interlude of night-time indie folk, starlit by the smoky alto of Lucy Southern. Lucy’s voice is a warm, dusty pleasure, weary and salient, despite sharing the same general aura as many of her contemporaries (Feist and Cat Power/Chan Marshall come to mind). She delivers the torch song in a spell-binding whisper, adding twilight drama to lines like “Let’s go outside/Let’s go out into the night,” language that reads as purely utilitarian on the page, but which hums with bewitching romance in the song’s lived-in mix of Velvet Underground, Dusty Springfield, and Nick Drake. The arrangement is similarly tasteful and mood-oriented, single stray notes of upper-register guitar dappling the song’s gentle strums and minimalist drums like starlight glimpsed through overhanging leaves. Southern show serious gifts when they allow themselves the opportunity to slow down and trust their own instincts for atmosphere. One can imagine “Oh Won’t You Go” soundtracking an especially devastating third act of some quietly emotive romantic drama. In some sense, it already seems to.

Coincidentally (or perhaps not), “Four Days” seems to split the difference between the boiler-plate stomp of the EP’s title track and the high-point dreaminess of “Oh Won’t You Go.” Built from simple parts – a quarter-note stomp of bass drum, some barbed pentatonic guitar twangs, Lucy Southern’s Delta noir melodies – “Four Days” hangs and sizzles like slow afternoon heat, a humid blues vamp that never quite breaks, and might benefit from that denied release. The song’s melody is familiar, a haunting, Western thing, coiling around oddly spooky lyrics: “Just give me forty days is all, and I will be your doll to play with.” The song’s components simply swirl around and around that stomping bit of American gothic drama, underlining just how adept Southern can be when their focus is on maintaining a tense mood instead of swinging for the more obvious dynamics of rusted-up rock and roll fever. The song has flavour, even if it’s borrowed from roughly four generations of artists who found similar provocation in this sort of gnarled guitar and this sort of denied release. Once again, Southern have set for themselves the Herculean effort of trying to do something new with the very components of rock and roll that predate even Little Richard and Chuck Berry by fifty years. Indeed, even their name, “Southern,” underlines just how earnestly the duo are trying to find their way in a regional American tradition that belies just about anyone’s best shot. “Oh Won’t You Go” works best here because it sounds like what comes out of this band when their influences, record collections, and aesthetic tastes linger in their subconscious. It’s just that Where The Wild Are doesn’t relax often enough to just let it all happen.

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