The Villaineers – The Villaineers – Album Review
Seems like a whole crew of cool people if you ask me. Been listening to this self-titled record by The Villaineers for the past week or so and checking out what I can see online…they’ve got a great sense of social activism that tends to flare up every so often, and I dig that they seem to stand for something. The good somethings. The same somethings I identify with & support myself, which of course always makes it easier to jump on into the music in knowing our ideals are aligned…it’s not a pre-requisite here and never has been, but I ain’t gonna lie, it sure makes it all more enticing when that is indeed the case.
And while all that speaking up on behalf of social justice & positive change for the greater good of us all is always a good thing – I’ll admit, I wouldn’t have made it much further than about forty-five seconds into the opening cut “Overlook” and the combination of warm bass-lines, sparkling guitars, and crisp beat goin’ on before surrendering to them ANYWAY. The Villaineers make an instantly solid impression, laying out a cut that’s got all the smooth groove and wonder-filled sound that you’d find in something like “Escape Is At Hand For The Travelin’ Man” by The Tragically Hip. They might be based outta Albany, New York, but The Villaineers are rockin’ with significantly Canadian-based sound that I can certainly get into over here on this side of the border where we’re located here in the ol’ nation’s capital. The main differences you’d find, aside from generally everything in the final results as it IS a completely different song & all…would be in the vocal tones, maybe that sprinkle of the strings in at the beginning…other than that, yeah – “Overlook” will remind those that are familiar with The Hip’s catalog of the dreamy vibes they were slippin’ into throughout the poetic & artistic side of their Phantom Power album, and how truly inviting, enticing & catchy their sound could be as well. They’ve also got a raw Pop/Indie edge to them as well that kind of reminds me a bit of the inherent sweetness, creativity, and fun you’d find in a band like our own locals known as Outfielder, though admittedly, The Villaineers are that much further on in their career and that much tighter that it’s like hearing a similar sound reach its maximum potential. In any event, I guess the main point is that I ain’t just liking what I’m hearing – I’m absolutely loving it. No matter how many trips I made through this self-titled record, “Overlook” stood out every single time and would go on to remain one of my favorites in the entire set-list. It’s just pure Indie/Rock brilliance with genuinely unique & interesting ideas, beautiful musicianship, vocals that draw you in with highly creative imagery in the lyricism…amazing moments like around the 1:45 mark where you feel that surge in the energy spark to life, or fifteen seconds later on as the slide into the second minute on a cushion of air. “Overlook” isn’t just a good start, it’s a freakin’ fantastic first impression that lasts – and innovative moments like you’ll find in what they do around the 2:45 mark will not go unnoticed, I promise ya. The Villaineers put their collective best feet forward with “Overlook,” and guarantee you’ll keep listening.
So…if you feel like you’re of two minds about ”Mr. Rochester,” know that you pretty much come by that feeling honestly – it’s basically a song with two completely different personalities and separate gears. I’ll admit…when The Villaineers started into a Reggae-influenced vibe right after the brilliance we just experienced in “Overlook” right beforehand, I had a hard time with it at first – but I’m also notoriously resistant to the whole Reggae sound for the most part, right up to & including the legendary Bob Marley unfortunately…it’s just a gap in my education and a failing to find my ultimate gateway in is all; it’s on me, not them. The Villaineers play it all smoothly & chill…it’s a delicate Reggae approach as “Mr. Rochester” begins, and I’ll also concede, it’s friendly, enticing, and appealing in its own mellow way – but I ain’t lyin’ when I tell ya that when this song eventually transitions into its second half, the spirited vibe that takes hold is where the real meat & potatoes of this song reside. As the tick past the second minute, The Villaineers spring to life, and end up revealing what’s one of the most accurate comparisons that you can make to their sound, which is Soul Asylum. Like – if this song had been created in the mid-90s it probably would have ended up on the Empire Records soundtrack, which is a complete compliment anyone from the era would recognize for what it is. The Villaineers all look roughly around my age plus or minus a couple years, so I’m sure they’re pickin’ up what I’m layin’ down. Love, love, LOVE the guitar solo that provides the fireworks in the finale of this cut as they surge to the very end. Overall, it’s fair to say that you get what’s basically like a 2-for-1 type scenario in this experience – and ultimately “Mr. Rochester” delivers on both sides of its sound – you might have your favorite half of the two like I personally do, or you might love’em in both. At the end of the day, the transition from one side to the other works really well for them, the energy is inspired. The vocals are laidback, but pepped up when they need it to be…much like the production here, which can carry a bit of fuzzy sound in parts, but breaks through with additional clarity at points to make more of an impact as the track plays on. It’s crunchy, but it’s also played with a whole lot of passion, enthusiasm, and genuine interest – which applies to both sides of this cut’s split-personality…there’s something for everyone to dig on essentially.
Is there a Tragically Hip fan in this band? Is that possible? I know they famously made their way to Buffalo a whole bunch of times, but I don’t know anything outside of music, least of all about geography, and even though that info is just a mere click away on Google, here I am writing this longwinded sentence instead – is Albany that far away? If only there was some way to find out. The point is, you’ll find a similarly eerie vibe that runs through “Comfort Zone” that’s more energetic than what you’d find on a song like “It’s A Good Life If You Don’t Weaken” – but comparatively haunting all the same. I dig tracks like this one quite a bit…it’s probably one of those cuts that the band is gonna end up being a bigger fan of than the listeners might be, but it’s also one of those songs that really has the potential for being a significant highlight in a live setting too, depending on how they space this one out or expand it in that context. In any event, it’s a meaty tune with a distinct vibe, atmosphere, and energy to it that continually stands out whenever you spin through this lineup – it’s a real matter of straight-up interesting sound & substantial material combined, and it makes for a great listen. I’m not completely loving where the backing vocals sit in the mix, but to be completely 100% fair to The Villaineers, it’s pretty much the same thing that I was never sold on in the music of The Tragically Hip too. Tone-wise, the backing vocals offer something different from the lead in that same kind of bizarre but insightful pairing that ends up having its own kind of uniquely inherent hook and magic that people tend to love. I’m probably most partial to the bass-line grooves and the brilliant way the guitar shimmers its way across the surface with such a perfect mix of mysterious tone for us to experience – but overall, it always felt like “Comfort Zone” provided a real journey in music of its own that had no problem at all pulling me out of my world and into theirs – and I love songs that are able to pull that off.
Lighters UP – let’s do this! The babymaker is revealed through “Red Eye Waltz” as The Villaineers head into the slower side of the music you’ll find on this self-titled record. Kind of reminds me a lot of what’s happening in the music of Sail Cassady right now…there’s a classic, golden-era vibe that runs deep through the veins of a song like this, yet still carries an endearing Indie-esque approach that makes it equally suited for the right here & now. The guitars in this band can be absolutely off-the-charts cool, which they’ve already proven at several points long before you get to the final solo of “Red Eye Waltz” – but believe me when I tell ya, if you weren’t feelin’ the immediate sweetness & soul you find at the very beginning, you will absolutely be blown away by the way they crush the ending of this track so bang-on. Everything’s on-point in this cut when it comes right down to it – the sleepier energy might be a tougher sell and that’s kind of the reality stacked up against all slower, dreamier vibes like you’ll find in this song – but from the warmth of the backing vocals and the heartwarming performance in the lead, to the stoic, steady, and reliably sweet nature of the music floating through the atmosphere…I mean…it’s just a full-on smorgasbord of sound that captivates, mesmerizes & stimulates the mind, body, and soul as one. The reveal a sensational dose of their diversity on this cut, and I swear, the tones of that guitar solo at the very end of “Red Eye Waltz” aren’t JUST amazing – that moment’s one of the highlights of my YEAR.
“Saline” probably reminds me a bit too much of The Head And The Heart when it comes to the melodic pattern in the vocals at the beginning…mind you, it’s Americana/Folk/Indie we’re working with, and there are bound to be similarities that naturally pop up. Overall, there’s not too much of the sound in “Saline” that would remind you of…what is the song I’m thinking of – “Down In The Valley” I think? Anyhow – you get the idea…we’re still talking about two totally different songs, but with crossover similarities that also pretty much ensure that if you’re a fan of one, you’d quite likely dig the other too, and that can still be a good thing of course. It’s no knock against The Head And The Heart either – I was in the front row for the band back when concerts were still a thing on their last tour through Ottawa – big fan of the band when it comes right down to it, so any similarities are more of a good thing here. “Saline” merges something like The Head And The Heart with Tom Petty and a bit of The Stokes in there for ya as well…it’s a pretty solid example of the hybrid directions that Folk-based music can spread out into in our modern day times. Bass-lines are lean & mean, the guitars as killer & clever as ever, drums are right on-point, and the vocals are as interesting as they are entertaining. The Villaineers might head towards the heart of more familiar terrain somewhat on “Saline,” but so do half the songs on this planet! It’s still well worth a spin or several – this band never sells you short on the final results, ever.
Slinkin’ on into what’s essentially a Pink Floyd-esque level of cool to start out “Big Sugar” sound-wise, The Villaineers then take you on into a sugar-filled adventure that’s built of confectionary inclinations. As I’ve said many times on these pages of ours, we’ve all gotta write about something, right? So why not write about the love of pure sugar in all its many splendorous forms? It’s as valid as any topic, and it sure beats the typical themes you find out there in the vast majority of music-making – and as far as songwriting is concerned, you can certainly hear the craft through the words being laid out. Sure it’s built on sweetness…like, actual sweetness…sweetness with tangible physical properties that is, not just a vibe – but when you listen to this track line-for-line on a lyrical level, you gotta admire just how focused it is on the concept and getting the maximum out of it. Like I said – we all gotta write about something – and that’s true; but when you do that, and you make that departure – be fearless about it like The Villaineers are here, and just DO IT. You hear so many slight deviations in music out there that come with hesitation & trepidation – but you don’t get that from The Villianeers here at all – they play this cut like they own the moment with slow, bold, confident musicianship…and they deliver. It IS an interesting choice that they’ve made to describe & detail such a fiendin’ for “Big Sugar” and listen to all the tales about the implied rush it creates, and then hearing that juxtaposed with what’s arguably the slowest cut they’ve got on the record this side of “Red Eye Waltz” – it’s not the direction you’d expect if you were to look at the lyrics on paper…you’d probably assume it was gonna come with a wild up-tempo Punk song. This really all works well in their favor though – “Big Sugar” is definitely metered out slowly and gives you that atmospherically-inclined vibe that Pink Floyd is famous for…vocally you’re looking at something that sounds proudly closer to the mischief of a Les Claypool this time around…all-in-all, it doesn’t really seem to matter what comparisons this band has drawn to my mind, they’re keepin’ good company, every time. “Big Sugar” also has some of the best harmonies you’ll hear on this whole record.
There’s no doubt there’s a side of The Villaineers that simply enjoys turning up the amplifiers and lettin’ the good times roll, and there certainly ain’t nothing wrong with that. A track like “Last Rites” to me is right on the edge…the very fringe of what I’d include into this band’s style & sound if I were them, or at least it’s the kind of cut I’d be inclined to advise pulling out sparingly. Basically there are two realities with a song like “Last Rites” that leans heavy on Blues-Rock riffs in that “Roadhouse Blues” style rumble – one is the fact that it’s a cut you KNOW that people are gonna get up for, and the other side of the coin is that there’s less tangible uniqueness to tag to The Villaineers directly here. So don’t get me wrong – entertaining, yes…it is – but new…not nearly so much. Like I was saying…sometimes you just wanna turn up the amplifiers, rock on out, and do what you know you can do extremely well without having to worry all too much – and quite often, when a song comes together as naturally as a song like “Last Rites” does, that’s just as much of a clear indication it’s gonna go down smoothly with the crowd out there listening. I have no illusions about this track whatsoever – people are most likely gonna have no problem at all loving on it, and that’s A-OK with me folks – we all like what we like, and I would fully get it if they ended up with a real fan favorite in “Last Rites,” perhaps even more-so in a live setting. It’s not my favorite in the set – if we’re talking about our comparison to The Tragically Hip still, then you’d be looking at a track like “Overlook” coming out of the Phantom Power era, compared to a cut like “Last Rites” that would fit right into the rumble & grooves of their breakout debut album Up To Here. Great personality on display from the music to the microphone in this cut here though…part of me thinks they might have more durability in the hooks throughout the verses than the chorus at the end of the day, but yeah…like I said, I don’t think The Villaineers are gonna run into much trouble pleasin’ the people with this track – “Last Rites” is built on the essence of real Rock/Blues, and tons of folks still dig on that.
I have my moments here & there with the rhyme-scheme flowin’ throughout the words on “Beeswax,” but I do like the fact that this low-key cut brings something new to the record that the others haven’t so far. What you hear, is what you’ll get more or less – the ingredients are minimal, but the effect is maximum, you dig? You notice a track like “Beeswax” in a lineup like this, given that the sound is way stripped back comparatively to the rest surrounding it on this self-titled record – but that extra clarity can often reveal great things too, which I’d argue you’re going to find here in this tune as well. Vocally, this ends up being a major highlight without question – the melody they tap into for the chorus, is built of nothing less than the pure magic of music and what captivates our minds just as much as our hearts. Though the defined rhymes come out really noticeable, lyrically, it’d be really hard to argue there’s not a ton of genius being put through the words here…the first verses especially I suppose, but you really get right to the core of what “Beeswax” is all about there in those moments. It’s a song that deals with information and communication on many levels…when it’s important to speak up…whether it’s ever really okay to simply stay quiet on crucial issues that matter…if we’re supposed to be calling people out on the bullshit or not…there’s a ton of great stuff to be found in the first minute or so lyrically. After that, it expands a bit and the concept gets looser to say the least…The Villaineers kind of abandon the ideas at the beginning a little in favor of just goin’ with the flow of the slick & cool vibes in the music before eventually reaching that chorus and snapping the emotion back into place where it belongs. Don’t get it twisted…it’s an unassuming little tune that doesn’t have a ton to it at the core of its DNA, but the ingredients being used make for a tasty treat that’ll tantalize your ears with mellow cool, while also givin’ ya thought-provoking lyricism, melody that tugs your heartstrings, and slick sound to dig on.
Shout-outs to Jeremy James, Peter Lavery, John D’Aloia, Katy Westfall, and Erik Pravel – I might not have exactly known who all does what throughout this record, but I can tell ya without question I’ve enjoyed this set-list from the time it started – The Villaineers has a lot to offer your ears, and they’ve got themselves a wildly diverse, talented band of clearly passionate & enthusiastic musicians united in what they do. “I said freedom” y’all – and that’s exactly what I’m talkin’ about here – the creative kind. Track after track, The Villaineers have consistently proven to have the courage required to venture into all kinds of different styles & sounds with the same level of confidence & conviction – and they all deserve major credit for that. There’s a stellar balance of strengths shared between them, and that togetherness really comes shining through when we listen. Heck, it’s the very reason a song like “Such Noble Men” connects and lands as effectively as it does, in addition to many of the others for the very same reasons…this band trusts each other – and it’s something you can genuinely hear. Sure – sometimes that will lead them down a few strange paths…like even this cut here, “Such Noble Men” is built on like…those haunting guitar tones you used to find running between the skits in The Kids In The Hall from back in the day…and it’s like they’ve created a song around’em here. To me, that’s unique – that’s cool – that’s enough of a twist to give The Villaineers that opportunity to stand out as they should, whereas a track like “Last Rites” earlier on, felt like it was missing just a bit of that uniqueness they have. Lyrically, it could very well be my favorite of the entire bunch…don’t get me wrong, that song about “Big Sugar” had plenty goin’ for it in terms of craft, but it’s songs like “Such Noble Men” that really have something to say…and quite likely, something many of you should hear. This whole track plays out like a true saga in audible action…part dusty Western, part Alt/Folk…it’s an adventurous & ambitious cut that really has its own atmosphere, aura, spirit & energy to it that’s different from the rest on this record, but in a way that completely works. Another stellar example of the hypnotic & mesmerizing effect that The Villaineers create so often through their music…the slight hint of Psych sound in the mix here is perfect.
“Old Man Winter” sounds like he’s comin’ in heavy with boots on lookin’ to collect his rent as the track first begins…but the vibe softens up with the addition of the melody in the vocals and guitars sparkling alongside’em…at least just enough to balance it all out, flawlessly once again. A great range of sound in this cut…you’ve got massive depths to be found in the growly low-end vibes and crunchiness of the edge & distortion in the guitars, and you’ve got a perfect dose of melancholic, weary melody that slides along the surface through the vocals and the tale being sung. A fantastic example of what BOLD sound can be like when delivered via the most subtle means – “Old Man Winter” is fucking intense when it comes right down to it, and it moves at just a heartbeat about a snail’s pace really. Gripping! There’s no two ways about it really…The Villaineers have an excellent understanding of how to use texture & tone to their advantage, both through the music and through their vocals – and there might not be a better highlight to point to other than this slow-burning melody you’ll find right at the end with “Old Man Winter” when it comes to all that. It’s artistic, poetic, melodic, and brilliantly accessible for such a low-key cut…you can’t take your ears off of The Villaineers as they play through this finale – and despite the heavy mood that shrouds this last cut, you wanna stand up and cheer’em for a job well done by the end.
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