“Nashville you’re much too safe,” advises Lonely Forest vocalist John Van Deusen on “Live There,” one of the songs on the Anacortes, Washington digital-only e.p. “Quit weighing the pro’s and con’s, just create,” he admonishes, like he’s been around the block enough times that he’s got the answer to Music City’s creativity problems.
You should know that Van Deusen is in his early twenties and he hasn’t strayed far from his small-town hometown in the Pacific Northwest. Hardly the epitome of the school of hard knocks, and with barely more than a couple of records under his band’s belt, he’s not a deep source of catalog experience.
But Van Deusen and company do have the benefit of one Chris Walla, the Death Cab For Cutie sound architect who has a boutique label arrangement with Atlantic Records and a pretty impressive resume of knob twiddling.
The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree here, with Walla shaping the band to sound a bit like Death Cab at certain moments and adding clever bits of instrumentation around the mix to make the Lonely Forest’s material sound a lot more complex than it actually is.
The best example is the acoustic version of “Turn Off This Song,” an embarrassingly precious song about unplugging from the digital confines. The song is nearly perfect in this version, with Van Deusen’s voice creasing on a blend of pure emotion and personal connection.
Walla’s version, on the other hand, has Van Deusen mingling with unnamed harmonies, note-perfect delivery, and a bunch of studio echo. It’s not bad – the band mix, especially the rockin’ breakdown in the middle of the tune is completely awesome sounding – it’s just a completely different sounding song.
The Lonely Forest’s arrangements are a blessing, covering up noticeable lyric deficiencies that alternate from potentially endearing to woefully lacking in depth. It’s kind of cute when Van Deusen rags on the “$100 pants” of his upwardly mobile peers, but then it gets kind of irritating with his endless hometown devotional, rattling off a postcard script of local sceneries that blow your shithole out of the water.
Yes, Walla’s hands are all over the project to the point where I wonder if I like the Lonely Forest or if I like the Lonely Forest as produced by Chris Walla.
I’m giving the band a pass here, as Van Deusen admits, “Life’s been short / I’m only twenty-one,” and for the fact that they have one hell of a drummer in Braydn Krueger. He propels the band into progressive territories in some parts, making their emotive pop rock veer into some interesting moments of band interplay. More of this, please.
And a bit more of the rough regional-tour grit that made We Sing The Body Electric! such a quirky gem; this could’ve been a completely different line-up, from the sounds of it.
The Lonely Forest are clearly headed for a more expanded sound for their first, widely distributed album, Arrows, due on March 22. Their digital-only E.P. provides a glimpse into that direction and points out a few minor quips that could have been avoided with a quick look back at where they came from.