FRESH WAX: Book Club, Noel Stephen & the Darlings

Book Club - Ghost

Book Club
[Self-released, 2011]


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There is a right way to do everything. When you boil down every argument and opinion, the true heart of the discussion always hinges on the belief that one way of doing things is superior to another. Some things are a little more subjective and the line dividing things done wrong and things done right can almost be unexplainable at times. But when all the explaining and arguing are done we can just tell when something is done well.

It just feels right.

Book Club’s Ghost is done right. And believe me, it feels so good. Robbie Horlick (ex-Cassavetes) and Leigh Anne Macquarrie weave together a mellow blanket of tranquil folk tunes that breath in and embody all of the nostalgic qualities of the genre. One can almost hear the ghosts of folk’s rich history channeled into each song. And yet, there are pieces of the effort that draw inspiration from more contemporary indie sources. While the vocals draw me back to the age of Cash, Carter, Dylan and Cline, certain aspects of the instrumentation bring to mind the compositions of some of today’s greats like Anathallo and Winston Jazz Routine, especially the string sections. Book Club’s writing encompasses all of what makes classic folk irresistible, with a pinch of elegant, tasteful modernization thrown in.

Every detail seems accounted for on the record. The atmosphere is extremely moody and blue, with each part of each instrument adding another layer of smoke and mist to the lush valley of sorrow and sweat the song’s convey. The lyrics are written creatively with each percussive stop bouncing off the next and sudden, unexpected phrasing surprising the listener around every musical turn. Somehow Book Club does what so few bands achieve with their writing. They establish a consistent theme and direction for their album but never allow themselves to become mundane, repetitive or boring. They layer many instruments into their sound, but use them creatively, never relying on the novelty of the instrument to do the creating. The entire record has a dated, nostalgic feel to it but it never feels corny or contrived. Really, the only way to achieve these attributes is to cultivate an extreme attention to details, something Book Club apparently does well. Ghost walks an indefinite, grey rope of excellence that spans the abyss of mediocrity. It leans neither too much to the right nor the left; the band’s every step is precise and perfectly placed, knowing that even an inch of error or negligence could cast them plunging to their demise below. That may sound too heavy and deep, but that’s how greatness is achieved. And it’s a standard that we are already seeing Book Club starting to live up to.

I could go on and keep explaining and arguing why this record is good and what Book Club does right compared to what most others do wrong. But I’ll say it again and leave it at this: when all the explaining and arguing are done we can just tell when something is done right. Lend your ears to Ghost and you’ll hear what I’m talking about. Like myself, maybe you won’t be able to fully explain it. But you’ll know it.

It’ll just feel right.

Book Club will celebrate the release of Ghost tonight at the Earl. Supporting them will be Madeline and Jeremy Ray and the Gonzo Orchestra. Doors open at 8:30pm. $7 gets you in.

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Noel Stephen & the Darlings - Ten Years Too Late

Noel Stephen & the Darlings
Ten Years Too Late
[Self-released, 2011]


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Noel Stephen & the Darlings is a five-piece band of musicians meshing together what seems like dozens of different musical inspirations and tastes on their first full-length, Ten Years Too Late. Upon first listen you’ll hear little bits of folk, some seventies-era harmonies, Motown melodies… and that’s all on the first song. As the record progresses it touches on many other genres from punk to surf rock. There’s a curious familiarity about the songs as well, like you’ve heard them at some point but can’t quite put your finger on when and where. The initial reaction to Ten Years Too Late is a tapping foot and a blissful smile.

One of the standout features off this record is the fearlessness in the writing process. As noted above, Noel Stephen & the Darlings hop back and forth between many different genres and musical time periods and blend unexpected little surprises into their songs. The vocals are sometimes led by Noel, and other times by his female counterpart Maria. There are also many different kinds of instruments peppering the tunes and a fair amount of variation between time signatures and tempos, which help keeps the listener on edge and makes the entire effort interesting. It seems some talented members make up this group and they aren’t afraid to use their varied inspirations.

Now, you’re most likely familiar with the simile that compares a person or entity to an onion, which grows deeper and more complex as you peel back the layers. It’s cliché as all get out, but this record is an onion to me, just maybe not in the way most people would use the comparison. Though it began by catching my ear, as I peeled back the layers of Ten Years Too Late, I found some unfortunate chinks in the armor. If you listen closely, the rhythm guitar parts on just about every song sound almost identical, a trait that begins to eclipse the appeal of the tunes by the 5th or 6th song. Also, while listening to the record you’re going to have to adjust the volume a few times as some songs are mastered very quietly and some much louder. It almost feels like each song was recorded in a separate time and place, which leaves the whole album feeling slightly fragmented and without common direction.

In addition, while the writing is certainly varied, some attention was lacking in writing instrumental parts that really stick out. Like so many bands struggle with, Noel Stephen & the Darlings fail to make every single part meaningful and precise, sometimes adding more noise than texture to the music. It may sound picky but this attention to detail is what separates the boys from the men. Unfortunately, for me, these lower layers of the album often counterbalanced the positive qualities and brought the overall presentation down a few notches on my scale.

In the end, if you’re a fan of many different styles and eras of pop and rock music, you’ll definitely want to check out this effort, as there are bits of just about everything in it. I think most people would be able to find something to appreciate about this record. The band has a good album here, and display even greater potential. If they can clean up a few details, hone their creative energies to a more focused end, and really push themselves to excel musically, they could definitely become a noble feather in the cap of Atlanta’s music scene.

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