Review: Nocturnal Blonde “Smart Heart” by Sam Rose
Rachel Adams (Vocals), Ritchie Williams (Vocals and Guitar), Kevin Sims (Bass), James Owen (Percussion)
Indie Rock, Acoustic Rock, Singer-Songwriter
Despite the images of rolling California hills cast in golden-hour rays that Nocturnal Blonde evokes, the band are actually deeply embedded denizens of Athens, Georgia. A fact that surprises for more than just sonic imagery reasons. Those interested in the bygone indie rock heydays might recall that Athens primary mark onto independent music was its contribution of the 90’s most absurd and experimental bands. Listening to Nocturnal Blonde’s new EP Sweet Heartit’s difficult to reconcile those preconceptions of excess with the restrained song-craft of lead songwriters Rachel Adams and Ritchie Williams. There are no Neutral Milk Hotel or Olivia Tremor Control-style psychedelic freak outs, nor is there any irony laden Of Montreal glam, just head-on earnestness.
Instead Nocturnal Blonde pull from the cities largest music legacy, one that’s often forgotten in consideration of the band’s international omnipresence. To R.E.M. what does a home city even mean? R.E.M. belong to the world, and so do Nocturnal Blonde. With Smart Heart they pull from that same international spirit. Finding their identity in the song-writing focused minimalism that launched their city-mates into rock’s vaulted pantheon. An aspiration Nocturnal Blonde may share, but pursue quietly, in the shadow of their own muted coos.
Evoking more literally the sounds of The Cranberries, or even Tori Amos, they hang the weight of sparse acoustic ballads on Rachel Adam’s belting croon. Songs built from the ground-up to do nothing but cradle her presence. Perhaps a touch of electric guitar here, perhaps a splash of reverb there, but never enough to bury the songs open skeletal structure. There are bones to pick through, as their collective chest is barred open. On “Blown Away” the song rides along on nothing but a lumbering drum roll and the sparse guitar riffs that reverb across the landscape. A bass hides under the surface too but its easy to miss, and I doubt even Kevin Sims, the groups bassist, could blame you. He knows exactly what he’s doing and what he’s there to do. This isn’t a song, not until Rachel’s voice rides through it at least.
Indentured to a time in indie music where a strong female singer-songwriter could carry a song without playing to in-vogue sonic styles, Nocturnal Blonde have an element of timelessness to their craft. And simultaneously,, there is also something smoldering and immediate to it. Perhaps it’s just the notion of an EP format fundamentally, getting in and out with an incredibly tight and focused five tracks. Smashing through your earphones with a genuine purpose that sets them apart from the sprawling and wandering albums they draw from.
As with all things in life and in music, there are hang-ups. Moments that maybe falter, or songs that fail to reach the bands self-imposed level of quality. Primarily the EPs fourth song, “Two Trees”, which seems to take the groups minimilastic intent to a kind of ideological extreme. Taking not just the song’s literal construction to bare-bones places, but the songwriting too, as Rachel takes down her powerful whispers to a drifting monotone as the song wanders towards nothing in particular. A singular failure that simply emphasizes the band’s strengths by virtue of their absence.
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