This review was originally published at Listen Before You Buy.
The first time I crossed paths with North Highlands was when I ran into their guitarist Mike Barron the night before they were set to play with one of my favorite new bands, Snowmine. He helped me navigate the horrors of the infamously under-repair G train that night. However, I actually ended up missing their set the following day as I had to leave early, and it wasn’t until last week when I suddenly listened to one of their tracks on a whim.
That whim may have changed my whole winter. Indeed, though North Highlands draw their name from a deserted part of California, ı voice almost embodies winter. Howling and brightly dark in all the right ways, she leads the band’s marching, circuitous progression of sound with conviction and beauty.
This record swings back and forth between lean rock n roll and orchestral fullness with the ease of a trapeze artist. The use of strings on tracks like ‘Chicago’ are so heart-wrenching – meshing well with Malvini’s voice, which is itself string-like, sharp and crisp, but poignant.
Lyrically the album encompasses youthful wanderings, struggles and dreams. On album-opener ‘Bruce’ – possibly the strongest track on the record – she nearly tearfully sings the vow “When it gets warm I’ll be better to you/ Stuck in my head, stuck in my head”. This song muses through the process of mourning and seeking comfort. Hypnotic repetition of phrases backed by guitar loops and piano create a musical cycle that leaves me mesmerized.
This same passionate lyrical delivery occurs in ‘Benefits’ as Malvini vows “Work I promise to work/ I promise to work/ I promise to pay it all of.” The repetition of the basic verbs in this song, like “work” “eat” and “grow” reveal the inner heart of the track, it is a song about the smallest acts and how they build themselves into the bulk of our lives and how important these mundane, basic actions are when carried out by someone we love.
Her vocals achieve the ethereal urgency of St. Vincent on tracks like ‘Salty’ and are similar to early Florence Welsh, Malvini’s voice often assumes a life of its own. The advantage that North Highlands have over even the most brilliant Florence + The Machine tracks, however, is the fullness of the band backing their lion-hearted vocalist. Many groups with an excellent vocalist rely too heavily on this strength, but the other members of North Highlands are by no means peripheral; their sound is balanced and full. In the midst of the track ‘Steady Steady’ I realized that as much as I love the vocals, the track would still completely hold my attention if it was instrumental. The multiple guitarists, bass, drums and all weigh in with an insistence and excellence that is rare in such a young band.
This is a band that has clearly done their homework, alternating vocal choruses reminiscent of ’60s girl groups with complex ’70s stylized guitar work, ultimately creating a sound that is decidedly contemporary, and decidedly stunning.