NMT) review on Friday is the next installment of my whirlwind sprint to catch up to speed. This is an intentionally short review, since the material in question is likewise brief: the five-song debut EP by the Los Angeles-based quartet, Harriet, Tell the Right Story – self-released by the band on January 31 via its website (get it for free here!).
At the helm is former Dawes pianist/keyboardist Alex Casnoff, and although he incorporates prominent elements of his prior group's sound, the new band's primary sonic marker to most new listeners might be Billy Joel – and not just because Casnoff is a pianoman. Casnoff's song structures, vocal phrasing and pitch all point to the iconic New York singer/songwriter. The comparisons come early, via leadoff single and album opener, "I Slept With All Your Mothers." On top of the track's punch, staccato piano base, Casnoff stretches out his vowels across measures with the sort of full-throated brashness that defined Joel's delivery. By the time guitarist Sean O'Brien and drummer Henry Kwapis chime in with their own sharply punctuated figures, Casnoff has already staked his claim to the number's identity. And while the band adds more alt rock crunch you might expect more from the Ben Folds Five than Billy Joel, it's still a sprawling, theatrical, angry piece of music that harks more to piano-based numbers in the classic rock era.
A little less epic in tone is the following "Soldier," with its precise beat and more prominent lead lines for O'Brien. The deliberate crispness of the opener, though, carries over and it doesn't take Casnoff long to reach deep into the lungs to belt out the chorus. It's also the closest the short record comes to a true ballad, grounded in Kwapis' steady drive and understated lines for bassist Aaron Folb – who also contributes organ and synthesizer parts throughout the album, while Casnoff takes some reps on rhythm guitar, as well.
The quasi-calypso beats of "Sign" specifically recall the early 80s, as if The Police paired with Joel for a slower take on "Spirits in the Material World." The number really comes into it's own right around the two minute mark, with the full talents on display in unison, and surges with some added oomph as it builds at the end. I'm not as much for the bulk of "Don't Fight the Feeling" – too moody and sullen for a band with this much swagger and latent power – but they track down their lost overdrive pedals just at the 1:30 mark, and I wish it continued longer. It seems likely Casnoff had a viable musical idea here, but could have benefited from some outside guidance on where to take it (O'Brien produced the record).
Fortunately, the ringing "Send 'Em Up" returns to the group's strength's, and Casnoff's belting narrative again reaches for the Billy Joel template. It doesn't take much to envision Joel telling how he "was followed by my brother in 1952," in a troubled family narrative playing to Casnoff's strengths as a storyteller and vocalist. It's the type of material that will yield a long run for the outfit if Casnoff and his mates can build on a largely strong start.
Come for: "I Slept With All Your Mothers"
Stay for: "Send 'Em Up"
You'll be surprised by: "Sign"