Friday, 30 November 2012

The Sam Willows - The Sam Willows EP Review

The Sam Willows - The Sam Willows EP [Decidedly Indie Rock / Gospel]

Welcome, it is certainly coincidental that today the Buona Vista Music blog reviews a band with a popular girl from a Buona Vista school. Sam Willows is a gospel rock band that shot to fame on the Straits Times as one of a growing number of local musical talent. But is the Straits Times a reliable source when it comes to music reviews for the instrumental connoisseur? Before we  move on to the actual EP itself, it's perhaps good to listen to the live covers that help propel the band to Fame:

Look at the way she looks at her heart throb.

The band prides itself in making 'unadulterated, unbound music', but a casual listen already shows a dominance in sound stage by siblings Narelle and Benjamin whilst guitarist Jon Chua puts up a subtle performance both aurally and visually. The band has obviously had fun in their videos and music, but does it live up to expectation?

Firstly, production: the sounds are fantastic, considering local standards. The sound of every string strum can be heard with perfect quality in the intro track 'Crown', which features the trio of siblings (the third being multi-instrumentalist Sandra Tang), with the cellos / violins having fantastic texture alongside the muffled vocals. The drums in the coming tracks are also well-managed, without being too bassy and sharp cymbal sounds, never overpowering the rest of the music. The choice of having the keyboard as a primary instrument as opposed to a background support baffles me, but I will take that as my own conflicting taste and not discredit the band for this choice.

However, songwriting is where the album gloriously suffers. For a band that tries to blend in multiple genres of music, there is sadly nothing here that you would never have heard before. Instead of creating something new with various influences, the sounds are mismatched with rough transitions, and it's evident the band is trying too hard to mix it all in. Vocals shift between all three vocalists with no significance, and vocal harmonies do not sound pleasant when all three vocalists are singing in choral lines with not much dynamic power, which adds to the gospel 'feel' but does nothing to hide the fact that the vocalists are unsure of each other's place in the sound. The 'whispering' vocal styles have no emotions like that of the band the xx, and this is no thanks to the massive amount of reverb on the vocals.

The EP technically only has four real songs: the intro and outro being the main song 'Glasshouse' with more effects. 'Crimson' has a pacing that is awkward because the singers are oblivious to the beat and sing out of sync, and when the music stops to let Narelle take centre stage, her voice lacks power. Her brother employs a crooning style which is dampered with reverb and the song has redundant guitar licks that do nothing to alter the mood of the song; definitely just put in for sake of 'transcending genres'. Similarly, keyboards flirt with the singers on 'Coming Train', with not a memorable lick or riff, and some decent soloing in the bridge that again, is out of place and would have done better on a more raw sound. The keyboards try to add some element of 60s swing but are not sharp or shrill enough. Sloppy. 'Nightlife' begins with an overly simple keyboard riff has a messy transition from quiet soul to indie rock (just some synth effect before Jon Chua's distorted guitars make their way to the song), collapsing before the guitarist even has time to make some proper licks and riffs, and ending with all three reverbed voices crooning away. This song also boasts some idiotic lyrics:

Goodbye, goodbye is not the end
Goodbye, goodbye is the end

And her hair falls in locks
And her hair falls in locks

I'll leave the night light on
I'll leave the night light on for you
In the witching hour
May the good Lord come for you

'Glasshouse' is perhaps the only good song on the EP, because it is the only song with a memorable riff, though repetitive. Jon Chua is perhaps only at home on this song, with no bad attempts to transcend genre and sticking to the strength of the chorus; it's sing-along chorus, quicktime drums and some really nice guitar. It's also the song where the vocalist shift in and out of stage with systematic cues at significant times.

As such, the EP is a glossy and beautiful box with the same action toy inside. You may argue that this band is doing something right by playing old school music whilst the rest of Singapore listens to mindless K-Pop, but that would only show the depth of your musical knowledge, wouldn't it? With bands like Rudra creating something original and creating waves internationally, this EP is something you would forget by tomorrow, unless, like a lot of guys I know, you just want to hear Narelle Kheng's voice for things other than musical purpose.

★★☆☆☆ Passable - One or two good songs, a bit of flow


JE's Take:

Just listened to The Sam Willows EP. Rather than writing a separate full-length review, I thought I'd share my thoughts on the band and their latest effort point by point.

  • The band members are obviously talented and capable musicians; all of them can carry a tune (except the lead guitarist, whose vocals cannot be commented on for lack of sample size) and play at least one instrument. Credit must be given to the band for trying its best to utilise the separate talents of each individual member rather than shoehorn the members into fixed roles.
  • Vocalist Benjamin Kheng has a nice, mellow voice that brings to mind Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol. Guitarist Narelle Kheng, who takes up co-lead and backing vocal duties, doesn't quite match up to her brother in this regard. The pitch correction and post-production on her voice at times get glaringly obvious.
  • The EP is generally tremendously-produced. The opening track, 'Crown', however, has isolated incidences of clipping - whether this was deliberately done by the band I do not know but regardless, 'Crown' has a nice, layered feel to it because of that. 
  • There are a bunch of worthy musical ideas and concepts littered throughout the EP, including the opening riff and breakdown of 'Crimson' and the chord progression in 'Coming Train' (including the delightfully tasty keyboard embellishments). However, the songs generally lack structure and come across as a bunch of ideas rather than as cohesive wholes.
Overall, the EP is a solid effort considering the relative newness and youth of the band members. It isn't extremely outstanding or memorable, but it does serve notice of the potential that lies within the band members. Strange as it may sound coming from me: I look forward to the band's first full album.★★☆☆ Good - Half of album is listenable

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