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(Independent release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/2/2014)
In recent years there has been something of a reaction against the in-your-face alternative rock and synthetic pop of the commercial music scene, with a number of younger performers and bands going for an intentionally more mellow sound. Of course, there have long been laid-back folkies and groups that used the influence leftover from the New Age scene so make light music, but the current generation are coming at the mellow direction from an alternative rock background. There has also been a continued interest in the music of the late Nick Drake. So some of that has come together in the form of groups like The Kings of Convenience, the Autumn Defense, an offshoot featuring members of Wilco, and to some extent Belle and Sebastian and a group called Wolftron whom we featured in this review series.
This week, we have another worthwhile group who create contemplative-sounding melodic music that draws on past such efforts and also brings in more contemporary influences. They are called The Honey Trees, and their new CD is called Bright Fire.
The band's published bio is rather thin on details. The Honey Tree are from Sacramento and San Luis Obispo, California and was initially a solo project in 2008 by singer-songwriter Becky Filip. Later that year, she was joined by Jacob Wick, and in 2009 they released their first album, an EP called Wake the Earth, which they recorded in Nashville. They reportedly spent a fair amount of time over the last couple of years working on further developing their sound. They often perform live as a quartet.
That time spent has led to the direction they take on the new recording, five years later. This time, they worked with producer and multi-instrumentalist Jeremy Larson and recorded in Larson's studio in Springfield, Missouri. Larson definitely fulfilled his role as multi-instrumentalist, layering string instruments to form a string quartet and playing keyboards, trombone and baritone horn, and writing the string and brass arrangements, all of which he played. Ms. Filip is mainly a keyboard player and some of the songs reflect the singer-songwriter at the piano sound. Jacob Wick is also a multi-instrumentalist playing guitar, bass, drums and piano. Like a good folky duo group, Ms. Filip and Wick share vocal duties, with each taking about half the lead vocals and otherwise doing the light, dreamy vocal harmonies that are central to the Honey Trees' sound.
In fact their style is described as "dream pop," and they say as something of a motto, "We try to make magic with our music." While the music is not exactly prestidigitation, there is an ethereal quality to much of it. Lyrically, most of the material is variations on love songs, but the sonic quality of the music, the nice vocal harmonies, the airy textures and the good quality musical compositions set this album apart from other in this kind of sub-genre.
The CD opens with a piece that sums up the group's ethereal but musically interesting sound. By the River features Ms. Filip on the lead vocals while Jeremy Larson's one-man string arrangements do an effective job in adding to the atmospheric quality of the music, which is also tempered by some rocky drums. <<>>
Jacob Wick's high tenor assumes the lead vocal position on the following piece Still I Try. Larson's string section is also prominent on this song whose melancholy lyrics are well-matched to the instrumental textures. <<>>
About as close as the Honey Trees get to more upbeat pop is the track Nightingale, which they said was one of the first tunes they wrote for the new album. The influence of more contemporary pop is evident in this nice stylistic blend. <<>>
The group favors waltzes in their composing which also adds to the kind of dreamy quality. Golden Crown conjures the image of dancing in a mist. <<>>
The Honey Trees can also look back to 1960s melodic pop for influence. Like a Thousand Stars can be sonically reminiscent of the Beatles or Badfinger in places. <<>>
Another musically pleasing waltz is a composition with somewhat bittersweet lyrics called Ammon's Horn, with Wick on the lead vocals. It highlights what this band is so good at doing. <<>>
A song called Wild Winds does not sound at all like its title. The contemplative-sounding waltz with atmospheric backing vocals are a kind epitome of description "dream pop," including in the lyrics. <<>>
The CD ends with another musically somnambulent piece called Ours, complete with swirling strings. The short song forms a kind of coda for the album. <<>>
Bright Fire the new release by The Honey Trees, the group's first full-length recording and their first new release in five years, is a pleasing album of atmospheric so-called "dream pop" that nevertheless has a fair amount of substance to keep it musically interesting. The composition are nicely-crafted and Becky Filip and Jacob Wick's vocals are excellent. I have heard so much music in this kind of style ruined by off-key alternative-rock singing, buried under reverb. This is a group that takes the musical concept and does it right. Producer Jeremy Larson's arrangements, and all the various orchestral instruments he plays, do add a lot to the sound. Larson was also the recording and mix engineer.
Our grade for audio quality is a B. I don't fault the all the reverb added to give it the atmospheric sound, and there's actually more dynamic range than many contemporary records -- the music has a natural ebb and flow. But there's still too much volume compression, it sound squeezed. And with the reverb and not a lot of sonic clarity, the sound goes from atmospheric to foggy and indistinct.
The Honey Trees' Bright Fire is a pleasing record that provides a very good backdrop for someone trying to unwind, but it's got enough substance to provide interesting foreground listening. It's "dream pop" with good dreams.
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