Waking Ashland | The Well (Immortal)

cd_wakingUpon further listens, little details begin to bubble up to the surface: catchy melodies start to stick in your head, clever turns of phrase jump out of the lyrics, and subtle musical touches start to emerge from the mix.

 

 

 

Waking Ashland's sophomore LP The Well is a stealth-pop album. On first listen, the album seems pleasant but fairly run-of-the-mill as far as guitar-based pop/rock: not so bland as to be off-putting but not compelling enough to force you to hit the "play" button again the instant the CD ends, either. But upon further listens, little details begin to bubble up to the surface: catchy melodies start to stick in your head, clever turns of phrase jump out of the lyrics, and subtle musical touches start to emerge from the mix. Before long, the little album you weren't so sure you'd listen to more than a couple times is all you want to listen to.

Though they have little in common aesthetically, Waking Ashland's skillfully rendered pop bears some resemblance to Guster, specifically that band's breakout third album Lost and Gone Forever. Both albums possess virtues that only reveal themselves gradually, and both albums show their respective authors consolidating the idiom they had established on previous efforts into something universally appealing. Where Guster rode their two-guitars-and-hand-percussion setup to college-dorm omnipresence, Waking Ashland's gimmick is that they're a piano-rock band that's not really a piano-rock band. Sure, frontman Jonathan Jones sings and plays piano, but instead of taking the typical approach wherein the rest of the band acts as backup for a piano balladeer singer-songwriter (á la Ben Folds Five or Something Corporate), the four songwriters of Waking Ashland concentrate their musical muscle on the interplay between guitar, bass, and drums, the piano and keyboards often acting as accents to give the songs a different flavor.

There are a few instances where Waking Ashland don't follow this template, particularly the momentum-halting mid-album duo of the hopelessly morose "Sinking Is Swimming" and the boring piano ballad "Mark Like Mine." Fortunately, these are the album's only missteps. Opener "Salt Lake Jam" opens with a bubbling piano line, but as the vocals kick in, so do the marching drumbeat and bopping bass, before the chorus is overtaken entirely by Ryan Lallier's guitar. The album's first single and catchiest song, the insistent "Your Intentions," is entirely devoid of keys, instead using fuzzed-out guitars on the verses, an arpeggiated riff for the chorus, and a series of slick time changes that result in a sound akin to a more pop-minded version of Hey Mercedes.

When the piano and guitar work in tandem, however, is when Waking Ashland really hits its stride. "Money," in particular, is a real stunner: a jaunty piano lick buoys the Guster-ish "ooh-ooh-lalala" high vocal harmonies as an intro to the verses, but when Jones starts singing solo, Lallier kicks the song back to the '70s with some smooth, Thin Lizzy-esque guitarmonies. The classicist bent of the song is only helped by the crystal clear production by Grammy-winning producer, engineer, and mixer Chris Shaw (Wilco's A Ghost Is Born, Bob Dylan's Modern Times, among others).

Though Jones' clean, straightforward vocals unite the album together, the songs of The Well stretch a fair bit stylistically, thanks to songwriting contributions from all four band members. Though the album doesn't quite reach the artistic heights of a certain other classicist four-songwriter pop band with a penchant for pianos (that'd be Sloan, whose criminally underrated landmark Between the Bridges was also mixed by producer Shaw), there's more than enough variety to sink your teeth into on this catchy and thoroughly likable album. With a sophomore album this good, you can't help but think what wonders await on album #3. A- | Jason Green

RIYL: Guster, Ben Folds Five, Sloan

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