Review: The Glorious Ache – Sills & Smith

Last year, OTM took a listen to Ottawa band Sills & Smith‘s sophomore release of original material, No Way In, No Way Out.  All detailed analysis aside, the one thing we could definitely say was that the band held a lot of potential, just waiting to be unleashed.  This sort of restraint in indie artists is something that occurs often:  take Karen Kosowski’s tendency to not quite belt on studio recordings, or on the mainstream side, Tori’s Amos’ tendency in the last decade to overproduce to the point of sonic Botox.

On The Glorious Ache, Sills & Smith have stepped up their game in all of the right ways.  From a more cohesive track order to increased utilization of vocal harmonies and less traditional song structure, Frank Smith and Jeremy Sills are finding a sound that’s truly all their own, with the multi-instrumental and production talents of Jonathan Edwards on hand.

As with No Way In, No Way Out, the band has crafted a series of vignettes that explore notions of isolation, social breakdown, and ultimately, the joys and agony of being human.  Opener “Hold Tight” is a driving, classic rock-laced caution for the masses, its evocative imagery a canvas of obstacles.  Life itself has become a tightrope, and where we fall holds potentially dire consequences.  Consider the poignant “Amanda”, a soft folk lullaby for Amanda Todd, the young woman who was sexually harassed, stalked and ultimately took her own life:  “Too young to be tormented/Too young to be defeated,” opens the track and yet, there are cruel people in this world who can drive us off the proverbial road.  More literally, album highlight “Tornado Alley” captures the raw devastation nature is capable of, and the people who are left to rebuild in its wake.  Its high velocity bridge is a welcome surprise on the album, as sudden and explosive as its subject matter.

And while there is a sense of powerlessness, of understanding all of the things we cannot control, The Glorious Ache is not an album without moments of hope.  “Parachute Love” evokes the free-fall rush of daring to love in spite of the possible heartache to come, while “Fill My Cup” is a soft tribute to enduring love.  There are moments also of an almost sarcasm, particularly within the lyrics of deceptively low-key composition “Be Careful”.  By the second verse, one clearly hears the truth behind the lines:  “Don’t be careful; be genuine.”

Sonically, this album dwells in more of a blues rock realm than Sills & Smith‘s previous outing.  I have to say, it’s a sound that feels more them, more freeing as an artistic space.  There’s a true sense of knowing how to create a mood through guitar lines; the album frequently feels as if it is accelerating, carrying the listener faster than might be comfortable or desired.  Kinda like life itself.

The album’s only weakness is a sense at times of two albums at once:  certain tracks seemed out of place, as if my iPod had commandeered my collection and shuffled two creative works into a single list.  It’s a shame, since so many of the songs are thematically on point and indeed, the overall songwriting has grown stronger.  As an artist of another sort, I am guilty of the reluctance to part with any of my creations, a scene that I love but ultimately is slowing the pace of my novel, akin to musicians who want to share all of their hard work with the masses.  Clocking in at 15 tracks, The Glorious Ache could have been trimmed to 11 or 12 of the absolute best songs and presented as an astonishing testament to the human condition, with the remainder released as streaming tracks or free downloads/pay what you can via Bandcamp.

This Glorious Ache is an evolution of the Sills & Smith sound, its foundation a more exploratory and wiser approach to songwriting.  I have great hope for the band’s future — and humanity’s, as well.  In the end, to know and appreciate glory, we all must endure the ache.

Highlights:  “Hold Tight”; “Ready Set Go”; “Tornado Alley”; “Freezing In Here”
Final Grade:  B+

You can find out more about Sills & Smith and sample five tracks from the album at their Reverbnation profile.

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