Album Report: “Walks on Michaelwood” by The Slow Boys

The Slow Boys are going through changes. The group is formed by Cory Simmons on bass, and Bill Sanders and Jack Boly switching between guitar and drums while they share time on the mic. Although the group hasn’t been playing in the city for too long they made considerable splashes with their debut double EP “Bird Teeth/The Slow Boys Ride Again”, and after this release left them with more and more opportunities to play they decided to add Dylan Andersen to their lineup on keyboard duties. This shift from trio to quartet implied a need to adapt their old material into something Dylan could add something to on keys, which I imagine helped solidify what the sound of the new lineup would be.

Their new EP “Walks on Michaelwood” is an embodiment of what the shift in lineup meant for the band’s sound. I had the chance to work on the production of the debut release from the band and I truly enjoyed their tongue-in-cheek songwriting, breezy guitar tones, slick bass work and constant changes in mood while maintaining a consistent personality. Their new EP was produced by Peter Flynn. It resembles their past at least in the ever-changing styles in the track list, but everything else feels slightly different. Echoes of old Slow Boys-esque ideas permeate throughout the songs offered on here, but they are faint when compared to the loudness of the band’s new stylistic intention. Perhaps the obtuse, alerting nature of the cover art is meant to imply that change is imminent.

It’s hard to determine a style on the EP. The band’s tendency to switch up front person does result in a complete change in sound with each singer. This is not new to the band, but the addition of a fourth personality to the band’s songwriting palette is definitely something to consider when processing the band’s repertoire of sounds (although Cory performs no vocal spotlights this time around). The addition of keyboards does leave us with abrasive synthwave on “nicotine” and “star star”, organ-clad slow rock on “J”, freefallin’ style piano on “ctrl”, and other contrasting textures that push the Slow Boys’ sound into a number of different directions. The more The Slow Boys switch up their sound the bigger the risk of their identity being lost grows, but it doesn’t seem like the band’s afraid of this at all.

At this point it makes sense to ask if this shift in sound and personality works. I think the answer for the most part is yes, but there are perceivable growing pains in The Slow Boys’ new direction. The opening number “nicotine” is equal parts fierce and urgent as it puts forth a vocal performance by Jack that feels much more desperate than the suave cool we heard in so many tracks of their debut release. The synth pads work well with this texture, offering an angular synthwave song to contrast with their rock and roll past, but the wah sound in the verses overpowers the mix, especially considering how thin the bass tone is. This one took a couple of listens, but it grew to be of my favorites despite my disagreement with the production. “star star”, another Jack song, works in a similar fashion propelling itself through the synth riff that opens the tune. Jack’s vocals are as infectious as always, especially in the catchy bounce that tints the hook. I especially enjoyed this song in its light hearted stress brought forth by stutters, word repetition and cartoon-ish vocal cadence.

I expected this sonic intention to continue, but the band shifts to a much more recognizable style on “why not”, a track that could have easily been on their debut EP with its bubblegum references, ethereal travel (on a cloud now instead of a big ship) and light strumming guitars. The keyboard takes the back seat of this one, perhaps in an attempt to reference their past identity. It’s a strong track that puts Jack in his natural habitat for a familiar performance that is sure to please fans of their debut. “ctrl” also sees a slight return to their original sound in having their longest and most ballad-like song in the release be fronted by Bill. It’s his only feature on the track list, but the 5 minute mark on the song makes up for it. The song is catchy and the hook sticks with me after one or two listens, but it can drag on for a little too long for some considering how different it is from the rest of “Walks on Michaelwood”. Bill performs at his usual low register with an emotional intention atop a slow rock jam, bringing the texture to almost arena rock territory in the final chorus iteration.

The shifts in style are understandable and mostly justifiable, but Dylan’s first vocal number on the Slow Boys’ discography pushes it a bit too far for me and brings certain questions to mind. “j”, placed right in the middle of the track list, sees the new keyboard player crooning over colorful synth pads that hover above a slow, soft rock instrumental. The chorus of the song breaks into only synths as Dylan confidently states “it’s a j, bruh/smoke a few of these a day, bruh”. At first it made me chuckle, especially considering the band’s recurring youthful and banal themes in lyrics, but the overly intense vocal performance paired with the dragged on length of the song and the final high-octane iteration of the chorus left me tired of the track quickly. The song stretches on for so long that it’s hard to feel the tongue-in-cheek charm after a while; perhaps a shorter length could have helped, but the song is so outside of what i hear from the band both in their debut and on “Walks on Michaelwood” that I inevitably feel underwhelmed and slightly confused.

It’s sad that my favorite track on this EP is only one minute long, but I love it all the same. “b!g” steps in with confidence, relying on over-the-top drumming and vocal melodies doubled by all the instruments in the band for an off-putting textural result. Jack goofily singing “I never felt so big/ coughing with my E-cig” makes me think of the charmingly juvenile themes that I’ve come to love from The Slow Boys. The release to the jarring verses comes with the chorus: everyone breaks into chords and mob vocals color all of Jack’s lines. The hook line “My distinction” repeated towards the end is powerful and makes me wish the track kept going, but all in all it’s a strong, idiosyncratic vignette for the band that showcases a new possibility of where they can go with their sound. “fizzz” is similar in style but much longer. It closes the album with a standard psych-rock tempo and bounce that sets the mood for Jack’s taste for Lacroix mixed with gin. His usual vocal cadence is as powerful as ever, and his self-declared infatuation for Jonathan Richman shines through in almost ridiculous fashion for a very appropriate closer.

Upon first listen “Walks On Michaelwood” left be a bit underwhelmed, perhaps due to my expectations and the big changes that subtitle the new release. Sonic inconsistencies solidified this issue for me, being presented with completely different mixes on a lot of these numbers. The drums are a clear example of this, being almost imperceivable on songs like “star star” but vibrant and loud on “b!g”. This unreliable sound palette paired with The Slow Boys’ infatuation with switching up gears made it hard for me to focus and understand exactly what direction they were trying to take. After a number of listens, however, I got used to listening past the sound and was left with a collection of songs that is catchy, intoxicating and brimming with personality. That’s the thing, these cats most definitely know how to write a good song and I say that with at least three of their hooks stuck in my head right now. I do think it’d be interesting for them to find a bridging factor between the personalities of their vocalists to produce a track list that sounds like one band despite the style shifts. It would also be exciting to hear them share the spotlight in one song, as I do think each member has a unique vocal identity and hearing them interact with each other could be rewarding to the listener and conducive to a more consistent sound.

My main take away from this release is that The Slow Boys put themselves in an uncomfortable position that compromised their confident interaction as a trio in search of change and pushing boundaries. In terms of this objective I think “Walks on Michaelwood” is both a success for the band in terms of development and new ideas, and an opportunity to look at what needs to be done to truly define what their sound is going to be. Most of the songs on here are strong, original and interesting in their own way. The ones that don’t work for me mostly suffer due to the fact that they sound like it’s a different band playing, but they still get stuck in my head and leave me with something to remember. I’m glad The Slow Boys are going for something new, as I’m always excited to hear their songwriting chops put to the test. If anything at all “Walks on Michaelwood” leaves me eager to continue to see this band grow and develop their sound because ultimately they understand what makes a good song and not a lot of people do.

Listen to “Walks on Michaelwood” via Spotify below:

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