Sunday, March 6, 2016

Stolen Silver - We Have Everything, We Have Nothing

There’s a lovely moment three-quarters of the way through We Have Everything We Have Nothing – the sophomore album from Illinois/Michigan-based folk rock band Stolen Silver – where everything wraps beautifully into what can only be described as the eye of the album’s storm. The song in question is called “Learn to Fly,” an elegant, wistful, electric guitar-driven piece of balladry that recalls John Mayer’s Battle Studies era. Pinwheel vocal harmonies and effects evoke the feel of an airplane headed for the skies, while a repetitious guitar part helps keep the mood weightless, but it’s frontman Levi Britton’s impassioned vocal delivery that sells the song. “I want to learn how to fly, and never come down,” Britton intones, his weather worn tenor snagging in such a way on those final notes and syllables that it sounds like the song could have come from a classic rock or folk record. The song, in short, is instantly timeless, and it’s symbolic of what generally makes this record such a joy to listen to.

Then again, the fact that We Have Everything We Have Nothing is a triumph of an LP isn’t surprising, at least to those of us who have heard this band’s stellar (and criminally overlooked) 2011 self-titled debut. For those who have not been privy to that album’s infectious folk-pop hooks, however, here’s a basic introduction. Stolen Silver is the musical project of songwriting partners and longtime bandmates Levi Britton and Dan Myers. One hails from Traverse City, Michigan, the other from Chicago. One is as talented a vocalist as just about anyone working in the music industry today, the other is a whiz of a multi-instrumentalist and a film composer to boot. And one went to my high school and the other to my college. As you can imagine, I have plenty of reasons to listen to these guys and find something to love about their music, but above all, both this record and the debut stand apart from the crowd because the songwriting carries some unspoken quality that makes the music ache. These are songs that stay with you from the moment you first hear them, and in an age where everything seems to have a pre-determined expiration date, that’s something worth celebrating.

Where the last record proved that point with uptempo crowd-pleasers like “Up to You,” “Please Stay Strong,” “Favorite Waste of Time,” and “Carbon Copy” (reprised here, without explanation, as the closing track), this record thrives more on expansive, slow-burning song structures. The obvious exception to that rule is the pile-driving “Prefontaine,” a track that takes its name from a legendary long distance runner, but which rings loudest on fast, windows-down drives. If you need one song to sell you on the pristine melodies and expert songcraft that this band trades in so effectively, make it this one.

Elsewhere though, the band slows down the tempos and widens the musical palette for sprawling, hair-raising hymns like “Awake and Alive,” a song that proves how million-dollar production and sound is possible without actually spending a million dollars, or “I Stay Lonely,” a heartrendingly desolate break-up song that shows off Britton’s Van Morrison meets Martin Sexton vocal ability at its very best. “Since you let go, I don’t even know who I am,” Britton wails on the latter, sounding broken, exhausted, indignant, and lovelorn at the same time. Similarly, the should-be closing track “Can’t Live Like This” burns like an arena-ready power ballad, combining dark acoustic verses with a chorus so big and heartfelt that it can’t help but feel uplifting. The extended falsetto-driven outro only makes the song better.

In fact, “Can’t Live Like This” is such a stunning song that it’s a bit of an anticlimax when one of the catchiest songs from the last album comes on right afterward. “Carbon Copy” plays like a Bon-Iver-if-he-was-happy kind of song, with an echoing, wordless vocal refrain so immediately infectious that it almost makes sense that Britton and Myers wanted to repurpose it here. In today’s post-Lumineers world, it’s easy to imagine a song like “Carbon Copy” resonating with modern pop listeners. The issue is that, where the song fit the breezy summertime vibe of the first album like a glove, it’s not quite a match with the atmospheric, nighttime drive songs that are the bread and butter of We Have Everything We Have Nothing. Sure, there are a few other pop songs here: the Jason Mraz-y “Blue” has the album’s biggest earworm melody, while “Come Back to Chicago” boasts a pleasant summer campfire vibe (not to mention the album’s most memorable rhyme, about Britton rolling down the windows, blaring some Ben Folds Five, and cruising down Lakeshore Drive).

For the most part though, this album is more about mood and ambiance than about catchy choruses. That much is evident from the two instrumental interlude sections, which I can only imagine spring from Myers' film composer roots. The first, “The River Only Borrows,” is so good that listeners will wish it was a full song, blending electric and acoustic guitars for a warm and openly nostalgic mood. The second, “The Reservoir Still Flows,” serves as a nice extended intro to “Learn to Fly,” and only further entrenches the latter as the album’s pinnacle moment. I’m not normally a fan of mid-album interlude tracks, but on We Have Everything We Have Nothing, the instrumentals are arguably key to the success of the record. They add worlds of cohesion and flow, bringing together this album’s two worlds – dusky ballads and infectious pop tunes – in such a way that, when we reach then end of “Can’t Live Like This,” it truly feels like a catharsis and a culmination of a journey. The first record was a truly first-rate set of folk-pop songs, but this one is arguably even better because it shows that Stolen Silver really know how to make an album that holds together as one piece...victory lap bonus track excepted. I, for one, can't wait to see what new and exciting things they accomplish on their third outing.

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