If life is a mix of light and shade, then 2016’s incessant gloom will take some averaging out. With increasingly frantic news cycles serving to stir up a sense of twitchy unease and the obituary pages reflecting on a vast array of deceased cultural totems, music is relied upon to offer some solace and escapism. By chance, Detroit trio Empty Houses may well have deployed their debut album, ‘Daydream’, at exactly the right moment. Its near-relentless enthusiasm is wide-eyed and often wonderful.
Charging in with ‘Better Of Me’, with thumping drums, a riff that triggers memories of approximately a dozen classic songs and the audacity to deploy a piano fill before the lyrics even kick in, things get off to a bold start. There are undeniable references to the delirious pace of Motown stompers in both this and the album’s title track, further enhanced by the dexterous vocals of Ali Shea who seems very happily at home across a variety of genres.
‘Mercy’ is a gorgeous, wistful piece reflecting on time gone by that serves to offer a necessary breather. Its gradual build ticks pretty much every box on the jazzy ballad list and is curiously evocative of Amy Winehouse’s early releases. ‘Hold Your Hand’ conjures memories of Nineties soul classics with spiralling choruses, simmering breakdowns and a guitar-driven chug, building on the swaggering, dramatic funk of ‘Lost At Sea’. ‘Falling Away’, meanwhile, all handclaps and sleigh bells, has a generous nod to ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’, especially in its gleeful guitar solo and concluding backing vocals. There are, frankly, far worse things by which to be inspired and this doesn’t disappoint.
Penultimate track ‘Every Word’ is surprisingly affecting after the near torrential enthusiasm that precedes it. Sombre, stately piano and a reverb washed vocal are all that’s required to reflect on a broken relationship. “We’re waiting for a storm to carry us away,” sings Shea on the sort of delicate ballad that, were it in the hands of ‘a name’, would be loved by millions. It’s in stark contrast to much of what surrounds it but it is an emphatic underlining of just how well these three students of musical history know their trade. It’s so good, in fact, that it might have been wise to knock the album on the head at that point, closer ‘Thunderstorms’ sounding unavoidably glib when it clatters into the enveloping silence.
Managing to do the retro indie pop thing far more successfully than The Noisettes and with nods towards Alabama Shakes’ shtick on bluesy thumper ‘Rope’, Empty Houses have absorbed a fairly substantial record collection, traversing the great American songbook of the past fifty years. They’re not striving to emulate any one particular act or genre, opting instead to let each song dictate its path. It’s not always entirely successful and moments of cliché are peppered across this album, but the moments of success are plentiful and Ali Shea’s distinctive voice ensures that ‘Daydream’ is an endearing statement of intent.
Words: Gareth James
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