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  Church of the Haunted South  
  The Winter Sounds  
  Theory 8 Records  
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Formed back in 2006 in Athens, GA, The Winter Sounds are one of those bands whose music I have always enjoyed whenever I've encountered it. Instead of falling in line with the jangly, reverb-laden, sunny indie pop of many of the Athens bands, The Winter Sounds instead has always harkened back to the Brit Pop of the 80s/90s. In the times I've heard them, I always make references to bands like Big Country with perhaps a hint of early Blur or even The Frames. In short, this band has always produced some compelling music, even as they focused on broadly anthemic themes.

But, on Church of the Haunted South, their mid 2009 album, released just after at least part of the band re-located to Chicago, The Winter Sounds seems to be branching out, with tunes that don't always follow the established path of softer verses and soaring choruses, all accompanied by tremolo guitar and dominating synths. That's not to say that the band entirely gets away from this time-tested formula, but rather that they mix up the elements a bit more to give the music a more complete and more mature sound.

As an example, the opening track, Swallowed by a Lonely Sea, begins with a gentle synth melody that eventually mirrors the vocal line which is underlined by the expected guitar arpeggios. As the vocals come in, the music swells and the synths become slightly more insistent before everything builds yet again into a slowish and evocative end. So, instead of an upbeat soar, the intensity comes in from the layers of instrumentation instead. Similarly, Candlelight begins with a bouncy bass line under a tinkle of a high-pitched synth and that ever-present tremolo guitar. Here the vocals begin in a half-spoken/half sung style (and include the line "Maybe I will get struck by a car, and lie face down in the streets of Atlanta" I'm sucker for any song that references my hometown), which are emphasized by the higher-pitched harmonies that come in on the chorus, before all of the instruments fall out during the bridge. At the 2:30 minute mark, the entire song stops and then begins again, with a different and mare insistent beat, before returning to the chorus one more time. It's a fairly intricate musical construction that has a inherent catchiness, even as the music plays with expectations.

In the same vein, The Heart is Scarlett, which begins the second half of the album, may include some of the same tones and beats heard earlier, but at the same time, the band includes a bounce and softness that reminds me a bit of the debut by San Francisco band Magic Bullets. But the most surprising tracks are the one-two punch of Hope for the Future and Graveyard. This first song has a lower pitched syncopated drumming that gives the tune a little more sway than you'd expect. Likewise, vocalist Patrick Kennan uses his lower range effectively as the tune builds up to a slower, very soft bridge (ala Candlelight) before everything comes back in. Although the music has similar characteristics to other tunes, that simple syncopated drumming recalls the 60s-drenched, reverb-laden sound that I've always loved. In contrast, Graveyard, unlike anything else on the album, begins with a fast acoustic strum backed by a synth line that sounds almost like an accordion. Then, the vocal harmonies come in and soar, but the music remains in the background. Then, at a most unexpected juncture, everyone begins to sing and a horn part comes in and the song just builds and builds without every becoming exactly loud. Honestly, I think if you added in a violin, this song could have come off My Latest Novel's Death and Entrances, which was in fact one of my favorite releases from 2009.

Of course, some of the tunes harken back to earlier work by The Winter Sounds. Second track Trophy Wife invokes many of the traits of the strongest tunes like A Call to Arms, off The Winter Sounds' debut, Porcelain Empire. Similarly, O'Fear retains the upbeat nature of Trophy Wife, while still adding a lovely opening vocal harmony that, if anything, recalls a more modern Scottish band like We Were Promised Jetpacks. Likewise, Marry Me has the soaring vocal line of something from The Frames, backed up by the martial style snare which is reminiscent of The Winter Sounds' earlier work. And towards, the end of the album, both Autumn Movement and Pinebox have the same feel as that which has gone before, although the first song includes an absolutely lovely falsetto vocal line and a vaguely punk drum riff while the latter includes a slightly funky guitar riff without tremolo.

I suspect that some people, not knowing The Winter Sounds, would hear that the band was from Athens and see the title Church of the Haunted South and come to the conclusion that this act was yet another deep Americana/ band. However, that's not the case at all. The music really is quite pop-driven and upbeat and, as mentioned above, this album does play to The Winter Sounds' strengths while still offering more variety than their debut. All in all, quite a good record that fans of bands like Magic Bullets and Venice is Sinking should enjoy immensely.

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