Sunday, September 12, 2010

REVIEW: Bern and the Brights Shine on EP

Artist: Bern and the Brights
Album: Swing Shift Maisies EP
Label: Self-Released
Available at the band's website

At just under 20 minutes, Swing Shift Maisies is a strong EP by a band recording together for the first time without sounding as such (previous efforts were done piecemeal) and suggests that this is a band capable of making a bigger splash in coming releases.

That said, Bern & the Brights’ strongest moments come when they manage to capture some of the spark of their pre-“alternative,””college rock” forbears. The band’s bio mentions favorable comparisons to R.E.M., and they do manage to tap some of that group’s pre-Warner Bros. energy; however, the more apt comparison is the early 90s incarnation of 10,000 Maniacs, with both groups’ penchants for strings, jangle-pop guitars, and an energetic rhythm section. Moments in the record also recall the post-True Stories incarnation of Talking Heads, with ringing guitars and polyrhythmic flourishes dotting “Sangria Peaches” and “Sleepless Aristotle.”

A word about the band’s lineup: this is a two-guitar/violin/bass/drum band, which means they walk a very thin line. In similar settings, the presence of both a lead guitar and violin can spell disaster, with the violin left sounding like an afterthought rather than a participant in the song. In other acts, a violinist is like stunt casting on a sitcom, but in Bern & the Brights’ case, violinist Nicole Scorsone is scrappy enough to hold her own as a second lead instrument, playing off of Bernadette Malavarca’s guitar in a way that feels less like decoration and more like a key part of the song’s DNA.

(The set’s “odd track out” is its closer, “It Goes Like That,” which nicks a riff from Led Zeppelin’s “Over the Hills and Far Away.” It’s the only song in which Scorsone’s violin seems inessential, though it gives the distinct impression that it may be a stronger live number.)

In less capable hands, this could be seen as an easily-abused pass, excusing acts for veering too far into the disastrous realms of coffeehouse and “lite” world beat of the sort that filters out of freshman dorm room stereos every fall- a lazy format a decade past the days of WOMAD and Lilith Fair.

Thankfully, this threat is largely sidestepped; the Brights’ arrangements work in the service of substance rather than style. Only one track on Swing Shift Maisies tops the five-minute mark (often the territory of jam bands and prog outfits), and none seem to overstay their welcome or become soggy in the middle.

Thought there’s nothing that would have been out of place during the heyday of Lilith Fair, the band manages to avoid the sense of complacency and generic tendencies that cursed other acts (after this point referred to as “McLaughlinisms.”) Rather, what Swing Shift Maisies suggests is that, for fans of jangle-pop who appreciate a brassy female lead and a healthy regard for a solid beat, these may really be the days, after all.

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