Burlington

REVIEW: Smalltalker - Talk Small

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Will Shenton

Smalltalker's latest EP, Talk Small, opens with a quiet, distant-sounding jazz-hop groove, casually noodling along and seeming to promise a more demure sound than their previous work. But fifteen seconds in, the track comes into focus with a few bold instrumental hits, fleshing out the atmospheric haze before launching into the lush harmonies of "Wildcard." It's a playful tease to kick off the record, and one that captures the band's easy confidence.

One of the first things you'll notice about Smalltalker is the comparatively huge roster of musicians—ten in the regular lineup, including ThrdCoast's very own Gerard Marcus on trumpet—that gives their smooth, jazzy soul its size. But they don't just rely on walls of sound to bowl you over; every song is meticulously crafted, giving each instrument its own time to shine. The crisp production makes it easy to pick out the constituent parts, leaving the listener plenty to discover on subsequent listens.

Talk Small may be a relatively short EP, but it feels like a fully-formed album. We ride from the wistful melodies of "One Too" to the energetic, danceable highs of "To Choose," before closing with the quiet reminiscences of "Sorry." And with such a density of instrumental and vocal elements throughout, Smalltalker seems to have crammed more into its twenty-minute runtime than most bands do with twice that. It's an impressive feat, and one that will leave you satisfied even as you pine for their full-length debut.

REVIEW: Wren Kitz - Dancing on Soda Lake

Kelly Kirwan

I read the title of Wren Kitz's latest album, Dancing on Soda Lake, and thought of two fairly opposite entities: the haunting elegance of the ballet, Swan Lake, and childhood daydreams, where the world would bend to your every whim. Instead, it’s a title fit for the band's most recent LP, whose nine tracks are woven together with ambient field recordings and delicately plucked strings.

The Burlington, Vermont-based singer has blended the traditional with the experimental, letting nostalgia and innovation flow together like changing tides. It’s a fluidity that marks the entirety of Kitz’s new work, reinforced even further by the album’s accompanying cover art: a deep-teal watercolor orb on a white palette, where each stroke of color bleeds into the next while somehow maintaining a fairly neat, cyclical pattern. In the words of his label, NNA Tapes, Dancing on Soda Lake represents “the gentle impermanence of its luminous song cycle, flowing freely back and forth between beauty and mystery, not unlike our own plasmic origins.” It's a rumination, washing over life’s deepest (and oldest) quandaries that ring true for each and every one of us, like how we connect or isolate ourselves from others.

A personal favorite off the album is the near eight-minute opus that is “Hold Him,” with its resonant tones that are reminiscent of the warbling echoes of the ocean floor. The song is introduced by an extremely deep, manipulated pitch, the kind you would associate with a whistleblowing confidante. Then it slips into more sedated tones, with the glide of guitar strings and a mumbling voice. Towards the end, spiraling beats take hold with a sound that falls somewhere between pressing all the buttons on a switchboard and water droplets falling into an empty glass. This delightfully strange array of sounds is offset by a folk-tinged female vocal accompaniment, turning “Hold Him” into a pastiche of sonic styles.

“Sleepin Dog” is another highlight, opening with those signature slow waves on the guitar, as Kitz’s voice whispers and delicately undulates, like the glimmer of a guiding light,  “I miss talking with my friend / This neighborhood is sleeping.” While mostly subdued, the song has moments of spiked energy, fervent interludes which create the sensation that we’re on the cusp of something, but just what is uncertain. Breaking free from the existential musings that weigh us down? Perhaps.

Dancing on Soda Lake is a work built with soft edges and deep contemplation. The varied textures that Kitz provides leaves the listener's mind whirring, balancing feelings of familiarity and a sense of exploration. A visual comparison I kept returning to was Ophelia floating in the river (as portrayed by John Everett Millias). It’s gorgeous, with an emphasis on both the surrounding natural world and the nature of being human, and a melancholy that draws us in rather than pushing us away.

TRACK REVIEW: Smalltalker - Cassius

Laura Kerry

When one thinks of the sounds of Burlington, Vermont, it’s likely that twangy banjos, earthy acoustic guitars, and the occasional artisanally hand-carved shaker come to mind. Perhaps one envisions these instruments all gathered around a fire pit.

For Burlington-based Smalltalker, though, the fire comes from their music. The band, comprised of an expanding and collapsing crew of musicians, plays soul music. They describe themselves as a group of “friends, and those friends’ friends,” and that kind of congeniality shows in lively tracks with a rotating cast of bass, guitar, drums, keys, and a horn section.

Their latest song, “Cassius,” off of the recently released Walk Tall, showcases the best of their shifting configurations. On the funky, R&B side of soul, the track begins with with a danceable beat and groovy bass line before languid horns enter to push against them. Borrowing its title from the birthname of Mohammed Ali, the song carries a fight metaphor through both in its lyrics and musical composition. Vocal lines swap punches; instruments bounce in place before going in for a jab; and in a slow-jazz interlude towards the end, the song takes a breather before heading in for the last round. Also like a good boxer, it seems measured in its approach, acting deliberately at each turn of the song. What it lacks from its sporting metaphor, though, is a sense of out-of-control feistiness that you can easily imagine Smalltalker achieves in a live show. If anything, “Cassius” feels a little too controlled, too consistently coy.

The most exciting moments in the song occur when the different parts, particularly the vocals, break their usual mold. In the bridge, for example, the bass changes from its usual rhythm to a double thump, like a heartbeat, underscoring the mounting suspense as the music pushes towards the end. In the second chorus, the singer falls out of the melody to speak the words “shuffle” and “trouble,” emphasizing these breathless moves. Finally, at the end, after a song dominated by its instrumental parts and scrappy lyrics (“you won’t ever hear me apologize”), the band drops out and leaves the vocals alone in delicate harmony to sing one last “float like a butterfly,” without the stinging second half of Ali's famous phrase. After a full and vibrant fight song, Smalltalker leaves us on a pretty and satisfying note.