CD Review: No Way In, No Way Out – Sills & Smith

Ottawa band Sills & Smith have a long history of making music, spanning ten albums filled with cover tunes and two more studio albums proper, the latter of which is 2012’s No Way In, No Way Out.   Jeremy Sills and Frank Smith produce music that primarily resides in the folk-rock genre, although they’re not afraid to expand into prog and hard rock when moved by their creations.  With multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Edwards on board, the band has crafted what they describe as “a desperate cry from the wilderness for a kinder, gentler, more caring world”.  Let’s examine the album track by track to understand the landscape of that wilderness.

Melancholy World:  The album opens with the straight-up rocker “Melancholy World”, a tale of inescapable darkness within and without.  First off:  props for not only using the word melancholy (not exactly a popular lyric choice), but turning it into a hook.  The harmonies on the bridge are gorgeous, and the note choices for the final “can’t escape it now” make for a delicious contrast with the low-register chorus.

Open Season On Love:  A politically-aware alt-rocker decrying societal decay and suffering masses, this tune’s loaded with moody, bluesy guitars.  A song befitting the times and spot on in terms of the album’s theme, the sparse lyrics work well with the guitar solos here.  I can’t help but be reminded of The Cure and perhaps The Smiths listening to this band, given the lower registers and hints of Brit-rock beneath the surface.

I Can’t Reach You:  A fairly low-key alt-folk number, “I Can’t Reach You” is filled with rhyming couplets and it’s incredibly off-putting to me.  The rhymes feel forced, reminding me of when I used to believe that poetry had to rhyme and would struggle to find the right match to a great stanza.  Thematically, this is a song that should appeal to me:  it’s a story of wanting to love and heal someone who won’t let you in.  Ironically, it can’t reach me.

Saturday:  A break from the gloomy outlook, Saturday is a jaunty acoustic-heavy rocker.  A happy little serenade to love and appreciating the little joys in life.  Punctuated with electric riffs and tambourine, this one’s meant for dancing.    One of the stronger tracks on the album.

Clouds:  “Thinking of clouds…. Dreaming of clouds…”  This would be the slow dance tune of the album thus far.  Lyrically sparse, the song is about, well, clouds.  The immediate mental image is of people partaking in *ahem* herbal substances and staring at the sky all day.  Incredibly folk-heavy, I’m just not feeling it.

Radiance:  The album’s made such an about-face, almost cyclical in a sense.  A love song perhaps, although it could simply be a salute to a person of inner beauty – a giving soul, a kind friend.  A catchy melody carries the lyrics along, balanced with soft harmonies.  Perhaps veering more into the pop realm, it works.

I’m Right Here:  One of the stronger tracks, and a love song.  I really like the melodic shifts from verse to chorus and the harmonies are well executed.  Although the guitar solos are again solid, I’m starting to pick up a distinct pattern in song structure that detracts from it.  The outro is particularly strong, almost ethereal.

It Doesn’t Matter:  We’re back to that folk-rock sound on this tune.  Heavily metaphorical, this one decries a mystery ‘it’ – you define what that means to you – and in turn, stresses the importance of what makes us human, what makes us positive beings.  Caring about others, feeling emotion, appreciating nature…  These matter.

Pain:  More of a rough-edged hard rock opening, fitting for a song of torment and agony.  There’s more electric guitar on this tune than the previous few combined, and the stop-start loud-quiet juxtapositions are refreshing.  Again, I’m reminding of bands like Depeche Mode and The Smiths on this one.  It’s almost jarring, how out of place this tune feels here, but it’s a solid track.  It feels like an experiment in songcraft for the band, and it’s a good one.  My favourite on the album up to this point.

Would It Be Different?:  The longest track on the entire album, and the most prog-rock of them all.  Contemplative lyrics, reverb effects, a drifting, lilting melody with punctuated moments of strong percussion set this track apart from many others.  The voice becomes an instrument on this one, to positive results.  These last two tracks really shine on this album.  There’s a sense of play here.  One riff mid-track is eerily alike to Matthew Good’s “Avalanche”, even falling away to a brief standstill like that tune.

Life In Miniature:    Folk-rock, down-tempo number following on the heels of “Would It Be Different?”. this one is a contemplation of the eyes of an artist:  how they see the world; how they capture it; how they may even escape it within a picture.  The notion of seeing through another’s perspective is right on theme.

That’s Not The Reason:  More of a bluesy rock number, we’re back to the rhyming structure again, although not quite as rigidly, to my relief.  A scathing look at war, society and its decay.  “There are no reasons for this” echoes throughout the song.  An attempt to make sense of the senseless that is ultimately futile, as the song recognizes.

Light:  A complement to the preceding track, it provides solutions to a world bereft of kindness and meaning:  looking for light in the world.  Strong guitar riffs in this one.  Lyrically, it reminds me of something from Live’s catalogue – an almost religious feel, without any one deity in mind.  Upbeat and optimistic.  At times, this album inspires mood whiplash.

These Ghosts:  A contemplation of life and personal history epitomized in the packing up of a childhood home, this tune’s as folk as the album goes.  Soft guitars accompany in an almost funereal procession.  A final viewing, as it were.  Plenty of harmonizing here, which is always welcome.

No Way In, No Way Out:  Rhyme-heavy intro…  Again, it begins to grate as certain couplings feel forced.  It’s a shame, because musically, this one’s as intriguing as “Pain”.  Lyrically, we resonate back to “Melancholy World”, drawing back from the individual experience of inner turmoil and pain to an understanding that everyone is in pain, and yet no one feels able to help another.  We carry on in silent sadness.  A fitting wrap to the thematic journey.

Final Comments:  I found myself incredibly frustrated in approaching this review, because Sills & Smith have the foundation of a great band with potential.  The guitar lines are solid, harmonies are beautiful and there’s a mature worldview to milk for contemplative lyrics.  However, the album track sequencing feels off in many places, losing flow.  This is in part due to the shifts in style from song to song that can be disorienting.  The band also suffers from formulaic songwriting on several numbers – a verse-chorus-verse-chorus repeating-bridge-chorus-outro sequence.  The use of rhyme is often overkilled as well.

Where the band shines, and where the strongest tracks emerge, is on songs where that structure is tossed aside and the band allows themselves to play in their musical sandbox.  The more they veer into progressive territory, the more appealing the results.  I’d personally like to see the band focus their sound and fully develop a true voice that is theirs alone, and cast aside any preconceived notions of what a song should or should not be.  Don’t write a potential single; simply write.  Not all songs need a chorus.  Not every song needs a guitar solo on its bridge.  There is such potential here, and I’d really like to see it harnessed on their third album.

Highlights:  Would It Be Different?; Melancholy World; Pain; No Way In, No Way Out; I’m Right Here

Final Grade:  B-

You can learn more about Sills & Smith and sample their music at their Reverbnation page.

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