Keeping it in my little fantasyland Northwest KEXP world through which I’m living vicariously, I’ve next slotted Seattle’s own Ephrata, here releasing their debut, as my new hapless victim of verbal carnage.
In looking at their iTunes interface, I notice that actually it’s been longer than you’d think since the EP that first made them a studio band: whereas Fleet Foxes’ work only stretched back six or so months before Fleet Foxes, Ephrata can boast having unleashed I Scare No One as early as 2014. Indeed, on this bulbous full-length, they sound like a savvy band very aware of its own strengths, poised to make starkly few mistakes throughout the course of recording, the product, apparently, of a lot of practice.
Whereas, though, with my last KEXP darlings Mhostly Ghostly, a sweltering rhythm section and Ig-worshipping blues riffs heralded out the sonic canopy, Ephrata are unabashedly undoubtedly a pop band. Probably the current act of which they most remind me is Mr. Little Jeans, but in my head, I can’t help recalling my whole swath of snow-thawing soundtracks I tend to idealize and employ through the years, which are, for some reason, Soul Coughing, the Get Up Kids, Mike Adams and His Honest Weight, the Grateful Dead (yes), and Throwing Muses. That, and lead singer (I apologize as to not knowing whether it’s Skadi Von Reis Crooks or Jules Jones, as they’re both credited with “vocals”) sounds remarkably similar to Kianna Alarid of Tilly and the Wall, a sort of obnoxiously perky indie-pop act which can go down easily enough if you’re in the right mood.
What saves Ephrata, and why they one-up their Omaha cousins Tilly, is variation from song to song: and it’s not even stylistic variation so much as it is just that all these tracks come off somehow as representing different constellations of inspiration within the given artist’s particular muse (I once heard the Beastie Boys describe all their songs as being like separate islands in their creative minds and I think that makes sense here, too). For instance, the first three songs on the album all come across as primarily the product of melodic vision, crisp, kinetic and fantastic, but track four, which takes the tempo down just a tad, tends to crystallize one particular lyrical vision, the “sea of straight faces,” which in turn matches the song’s name. Seeing as this is pop, a genre which Fiona Apple gave the burden of “being universal enough to appeal to everyone,” this “sea” of “faces” frees itself of the obligation of TOO much specificity, especially seeing as such a thing certainly renders abundant feeling, meaning and even confusion within the sundry onlooker’s mind.
Scant parts of side B, like “1000 Things” and “What is Mine,” fall victim to archetypal Northwestern cheesiness (on the former the singer says she “wants to do 1000 things”, in which the tawdry optimism will make you long for Muddy Waters’ “I Just Want to Make Love to You”), but pretty much every song after that on the album is good, especially closeur “Sun Scenario,” which plays sort of like Wolf Parade on an extra bong load, or for that matter if their record label would be kind enough to smoke a peace pipe and lay off the cutthroat capitalistic tactics.
Most of the album reflects a pert education in faithful Northwest New Pornographers/Shins tradition, but “Fiend Folio” is a notable stylistic aberration. It opens with sparse, translucent progression and complex background vocals which just might call to mind Come on Feel the Illinoise!, before assuming a cooler, loungey sort of feel as if they’ve been spacing out to some serious Curtis Mayfield in those pool halls. What sets Ephrata apart from the typical “sea” of unremarkable indie pop? Well, that, but also the especial punctiliousness of a band willing to wait three years before releasing their first EP, lest there be any loose ends to tie up.