Thursday, December 10, 2015

Album Review: Niche - "Heading East"

Niche is a soulful rock band hailing from the grassy fields of Savannah, Georgia, a rock band with a great understanding of how to mix in some generous blues and just a touch of folk.  Their third album, “Heading East” is a study in layered construction and multi-faceted writing.

Different listeners are going to have different experiences with “Heading East,” which sounds pedantic to say but let us explain; the album channels many of the rock pillars from yesteryear and takes a bite from each one’s hallowed apple.  The musical structures and lyrical rhythms are a reflection of many names we hold dear, like Pink Floyd, Cream, Simon and Garfunkel, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and a dozen others.  So those at home may draw very conclusions about Niche depending on what their own musical experience is.  What’s beyond debate is that “Heading East” is a songwriter’s album that is fully aware of its own strengths and capitalizes on doing a few things very well rather than overextending.

One of the major tricks that Niche uses is a harmonic layering of vocals, either through the echoed replication of a single vocalist or just plain having two people sing.  As a rock audience, we’ve become so accustomed to the idea of twin guitar that it’s easy to forget that a six-string needn’t be the only kind of harmony that affects us.  Just listen to “On Down the Line” and take in the three-part vocals for a minute.  The song is stirring, not in the way that implores us to take action, but in the way that our ear is naturally tuned to enjoy multi-part harmony, which I suppose implores us to listen to more of that song.

Before I get too carried away speaking about music theory and physiology that’s way above my pay grade, let’s get back to the meat and potatoes of “Heading East.”  It’s a six-cut record that feels just about right in length, despite the small number of tunes.  Each song is a complete thought that takes between four and nine minutes, with none in particular feeling like they need to be longer or shorter, which in itself is an accomplishment.

Anyone who has spent significant time on a college campus would agree that any jerk with an acoustic guitar can write songs meant to be heartfelt or meaningful, often with pretentious and/or disastrous results.  So what makes Niche stand out is that these are emotional pieces composed with great care and, in the mangled words of Tommy Wiseau, meticulous planning.  It would have been easy enough to cash in an easy ballad like “Sweet Dear Anne” with the usual template and call it a day, but the song instead is a multi-layered, articulate song of longing with organ, guitar and vocal all mixed to give different impressions through the different steps of the song.

The only thing that wish Niche had done for “Heading East” was show a little more urgency, a little more often.  There’s nothing wrong with the compositions they have for what they are, but the pacing and up-tempo melody of “Tough and Mean” is so catchy and artistically powerful as a contrast to the rest of the record that it stands out above and beyond what surrounds it.

Same goes for the lengthy, energetic outro of “Days to Come.”  It’s a classic rock staple to have that one long, wandering journey close out an album, but this one is notable for its suddenly rocking outro with a heavy dose of twin guitar and steadily beating percussion.  Between these two examples, one wonders why Niche doesn’t employ this tool more often, as it is clearly a strength.

Nevertheless, the folksy colors of Niche’s “Heading East” and its peaceful attitude make for a relaxing and refreshing change of pace.  It’s a winter release that drops just a few of the best parts of summer back into our laps for the duration of the record.  If you need an album of well-heeled songwriting that brings some good rock to the table, “Heading East” is a good fit, and by the by, it won’t harsh your mellow.

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