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Soul Low’s Nervy, Effusive Indie-Rock

Aug. 14, 2013
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“All my favorite singers couldn’t sing,” David Berman once croaked on a Silver Jews record. It’s unclear whether the guys in the Milwaukee trio Soul Low are Silver Jews people—if they are, the influence isn’t readily apparent on their new debut album, Uneasy—but talk to them about the music they do like and a clear pattern emerges. They cite as favorites indie-rock acts like Born Ruffians, WU LYF, Modest Mouse and Shakey Graves, all bands led by singers with small, unsteady, gravelly or otherwise unreliable voices. All their favorite singers can’t sing, either.

Not that there’s any shame in bad singing. On a gut level, bad singing can be the most fun kind to sing along with. And on an emotional level, as Soul Low’s bassist and co-singer Sam Gehrke explains, there’s something disarming and pure about unconventional voices. It’s one thing for a performer with a flawless set of pipes to belt out a song, but another for a meek singer to share his or her imperfect voice with the world. “There’s something vulnerable and insecure about that sound,” Gehrke says. “I think a lot of bands take the stage and put up a front, which can be really off-putting. You can pick up on it when you’re watching them live. We’ve always preferred a sound that’s honest and really sincere.”

Soul Low have been playing together for several years, since when the band members were still in high school, but Gehrke says the band never quite clicked until they began taking inspiration from another Milwaukee trio a generation or two their seniors: The Violent Femmes. In Gordon Gano’s nervous whine, Gehrke and singer/guitarist Jake Balistrieri found confidence in their own wobbly voices. “We’ve never been really good singers,” Gehrke says. “We used to play together in a blues jam band in high school, but we would never sing because we were super self-conscious about it. So listening to Gordon Gano helped a lot. We tried to emulate him.”

Listening to Uneasy, it’s hard to imagine they were ever insecure about their vocals. If anything, Gehrke and Balistrieri sound downright proud of them, presenting them with various degrees of boisterousness over eight effusive songs that play anxious sentiments for grand, cheerful pomp. It’s a rousing, unrelentingly entertaining record, loaded with surprise twists and turns and sticky sing-alongs that probably kill live. For a band that feigns timidity, they sure know how to play to a crowd.

Throughout the album, Soul Low’s jazz-student pedigree reveals itself in ways both subtle and unexpected. It’s present in Charlie Celenza’s tunefully restrained drumming and Gehrke’s melodic basslines, and more unmistakably so in the occasional horn assists from saxophonist Sean Hirthe, a friend of the band who functions as something of a fourth member. Gehrke credits producer Shane Olivio for helping them capture vocal harmonies and horn arrangements that might have been swallowed on home recordings.

“This was the first time we’ve done a professional recording since 2010, since a lot of what we’ve done is home Garage Band recordings,” Gehrke says. “It definitely puts you in a more professional mode being in the studio. At home you get a lot more relaxed and comfortable taking your time recording. But once you’re on the clock, there’s incentive to nail the songs because you’re paying for them. It’s definitely an upgrade, though, because you’re working with better equipment and somebody who has been doing this for a much longer time than you have.”

Uneasy is streaming at soullowband.bandcamp.com.


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