13 March 2014 (Safety Records)
The simple existence of City States 2014 debut is refreshing. In the current state of music, artists survive more and more entirely off their ability to adapt to the shifting fads while intertwining themselves with an audience of 5-second attention spans. Chicago’s City States would fit more comfortably in a room with Dntel an Ben Gibbard than, say, James Blake or M83. This is in part from production value, but there’s also warmth to the vulnerability and immediacy on the record, so abruptly straightforward that it’s strongest asset is the unflinching directness, both lyrically and musically.
Joel Ebner, residing in Chicago, focuses much of the album on his father’s sudden death, lyrically cementing each song in heavily personal anecdotes. On songs like “Uncharted Waters” and “There Was A Time”, this emotional quality comes off as powerful because of its empty spaces in the words. However, songs like “To Remember”, while musically enjoyable, use this direct lyrical quality nearly too much, feeling more like a diary entry on a topic where words can’t really do it justice. However, Ebner’s voice shines on all the tracks, likening him to a Devon Welsh of Majical Cloudz impersonator (no pun intended). The words are just as bare bones as a song like “Childhood’s End”, and while they lack the dark intensity of that band, they remain strong and gutsy, and beautifully recorded.
Part of me wishes half of Geography was recorded more lo-fi, like Death Cab For Cutie’s early days, which added a welcomed element of angst and raw, frenetic energy. The piano chords are drenched in lovely reverb, and provide a backbone for the higher octave hooks, and that all sounds quite beautiful. It’s likely the Strokes fan in me that wants “Endless Sunlight” to be more brash and abrasive, all while still carrying the melodic twists and turns. The simple placement of effects throughout the record also bring in elements of Brian Eno and Postal Service, that sometimes make the song stand out even more than the melodies. The excellent “False Start”, which opens the album, is a joyous, melodic ride through all the best parts of the album. It holds the most resonating vocal performance of the record, and fits well throughout the whole song. Elsewhere, sometimes the vocals drown out the music, which in some cases need more open space to fully appreciate.
As far as debuts go, City States stand out as clearly knowing their position within the influences and contemporaries of their sound, while focusing more on clever songwriting than vocal tricks or tactics like R&B inspired grooves (which are all the rage right now). Joel Ebner has the powerful voice that, given more experience and intensity, could fit alongside Pete Silberman of The Antlers, crooning his heart out to 20 something’s dealing with their own issues through his deeply personal lyrics. The able to relate to the themes on the album are also a strong factor, once again, as best exemplified on “Uncharted Waters”, which drifts more into speculation and contemplation than sentimentality. There’s a little to go before these themes get fleshed out as best they can, but without the weight on their shoulders of a major label debut, City States have all the power to slowly seep into the scene, potentially getting better each time around.
Favorite Tracks: “False Start”, “Uncharted Waters”, “There Was a Time”
Rating: Liked It