This article first appeared in The Sound Advocate, a HiFi publication that offers “Sound component reviews and commentary For The Discerning Listener!”
As rock continues to evolve in the modern era, the critical moment for newcomers tends to arrive when they release an album that displays their unique take on the iconic genre. Among the newest contributors is Jade Bird, with her most recent album Different Kinds of Light, and Greta Van Fleet with The Battle at Garden’s Gate. Each of these albums, sophomore efforts for both artists, see them taking that step toward their original interpretations of rock.
Jade Bird introduced her brand of pop-Americana on her self-titled debut album, which showcased her powerfully raw voice and ability to write introspective songs. The album combined her influences from artists that were similarly fearless in their approach to pitch such as Alanis Morissette, Joni Mitchell, and Janis Joplin. The album was well-received from the start and allowed her the freedom to explore any genre of her choosing on her second album.
Different Kinds of Light opens with “Dkol”, a brief psychedelic introduction that features the song fading before kicking into gear with “Open Up the Heavens”, a hard-hitting tune with a thumping guitar line. The drums are just saturated enough to pack an extra punch, and Jade’s unique croon sets the stage for the rest of the album right out of the gate. So far, the predominant pop influences from her first album seem to have been replaced with a much more rock-based edge, which serves her well.
“Different Kinds of Light” is the album’s centerpiece, as well as its most intimate. Almost whispering at times, Jade’s voice is upfront, clear, and dreamy. Every instrument feels vulnerable and defined. The break in the middle of the song is hauntingly expansive, and the piano that drops in at each chorus is ghostly and effectively dissonant.
“Trick Mirror” picks up the pace once again with a running bass line to carry the verses. Her voice is allowed the slightest amount of disfigurement in places, cutting through the ethereal keyboards and 80’s-tinged guitars. This comes as a package deal with the next song, “I’m Getting Lost”, which receives similar treatment. It thunders away in the vein of Tom Petty in the verses, and includes cautionary lyrics that warn: “Don’t go out too far on your own at night.”
Jade’s unique vocal glissando between notes is in full force on “Houdini” as she laments the end of a relationship with mournful resignation. This and the next song “1994” both feel like they could have come from that year. The latter features distorted guitar with feedback that pans back and forth in the bridge and fills out the tune with a gritty attitude.
“Now is the Time” introduces several percussive elements such as a shaker and bongo drums. The song is a joyous call for optimism in the face of unrealized potential; a perfectly placed sentiment within the somewhat cynical album.
Jade’s saturated vocals continue to shine as we reach “Candidate”, which charges ahead with a fuzz bass tone and several electric guitars accompanying the returning stereo acoustic guitars. The stripped-down “Red White and Blue” consists of only an acoustic guitar, bass, and vocals. Interestingly, one mono guitar and vocals sound as if they’ve been recorded together with one microphone, giving this track an authentic and intimate feel. Starting gently before dropping into one of the album’s best choruses, “Rely upon On” stays mostly acoustic, aside from an R.E.M. flavored electric guitar lick.
On “Prototype”, a harmonica and clapping make their first appearance on the album, bringing back the charmingly uplifting folk-rock aspect. Jade has saved one of her best vocal performances for last on “Headstart”, as she delivers raspy belts in the chorus, surrounded by distorted guitars. The song closes out an album that has proven to be a definite step in the right direction for Jade Bird, who has shown that she has what it takes to broaden her horizons while crafting a mature and fully realized album.
Greta Van Fleet
One of the most polarizing rock bands of the current era, Greta Van Fleet rose to prominence in 2017 with the Grammy Award-winning double EP From the Fires. With a sound that heavily evoked the classic rock icons that came before them, Led Zeppelin in particular, they immediately had audiences torn on whether they were the saviors of rock or simply ripping off the greats. Their first full-length album Anthem of the Peaceful Army maintained this status of contrast between fans and critics, and it wouldn’t be until their second album that the band would begin to find their sound.
The Battle at Garden’s Gate opens with the swelling of a Hammond organ on “Heat Above”. The drums rumble before breaking into an array of strings, layered guitars, and organ. Lead singer Josh Kiszka’s vocals soar above an acoustic guitar in the verses, and it is clear from the onset that the band has not only expanded their horizons musically but sonically.
The warmth from having recorded the album to tape seeps through as they burst into the choruses. On “My Way, Soon”, a concert-ready rocker, the group celebrates the freedom of being a touring band with almost comically simplistic lyrics. The reckless abandon on the track serves as the bridge between their garage band days and their growing popularity.
“Broken Bells” is a wonderfully dynamic song, building from reserved and delicate verses into a powerful chorus that fills the soundscape with pounding toms, a string quartet, and lush reverb. Guitarist Jake Kiszka plays one of the album’s best solos, making liberal use of a wah pedal for the climax of the song.
The next track, “Age of Machine”, starts quietly with a classic riff. As the guitar and drums emerge from the reverb, the band settles into a killer groove while musing on the attachments of man to technology. Although somewhat buried in the mix, Josh’s vocals are one of his most driven performances on the album. The highlight here is Jake’s biting solo, which is placed between two quasi-choruses that speak of the human need for healing.
This theme carries over into the another song, “Tears of Rain”. The song opens with a beautifully recorded acoustic guitar, where we can hear all of the nuances of Jake’s playing. Rising and falling in operatic fashion, Josh’s voice reaches for its limits in the soul-inspired coda, asking “Who will bring the rain?”. Thunder rumbles and the fullness of the grand piano rings out.
“Stardust Chords” is a song that begins dramatically with a series of chords and pounding drums that sound both Western and otherworldly. The central riff chugs through the album’s most prog-rock-sounding tune, which features war-torn imagery in the lyrics and some of Josh’s most impressive vocal acrobatics. At its climax, the song has something going on at every point within the stereo field: background vocals and effects panning back and forth, strings, layered guitars around a solo, organ, with bass and drums underneath.
The true ballad of the album, “Light My Love”, is begins its opening with a joyful piano line in 3/4 time. Josh’s declaration of love is refreshingly universal rather than singular, singing “A grand revolution outlined, hate bound by fear will unwind.”
The two tracks, “Caravel” and “The Barbarians”, were recorded during the pandemic, somewhat later than the rest of the album. The former showcases the best drum sounds on the album, bursting into a fill that perfectly introduces the weight of the track. There are several guitar riffs in different sections, each of them equally heavy and almost grunge-influenced. The latter track explores some of the group’s most unique experimentation’s thus far, opening with a menacing mellotron line and a Hendrix-style guitar melody. In this case, the vocals are possibly the best on the album, and the instrumental break before the final chorus finds the entire group at their peak performance capabilities.
Rounding off the final cut on the album, “The Weight of Dreams”, is a nearly 9-minute excursion. Jake undoubtedly takes the spotlight here, playing multiple layers of guitar melodies and a solo that spans almost the entire second half of the song. As the song reaches its climax, Jake’s solo begins panning from hard left to hard right and back again with each phrase, creating an almost dizzying effect before finally giving way to an acoustic guitar line that brings the album to a close. It is an ambitious ending to an expansive and dynamic album that raised the bar for what Greta Van Fleet is capable of. Both albums are highly recommended!
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