Athens, Georgia has long since passed into lore as one of the crucial, if improbable, hubs for memorable modern rock music. Instant Smile continues that tradition in their wayward yet impassioned way with their new EP 4 x 2 and its four tracks stand well alongside the band’s best work since first forming in 2013.
Instant Smile’s drummer Erin Berry and guitarist Greg Phoenix’s vision for the unit’s artistic signature is a seamless synthesis of assorted musical styles into a cohesive, identifiable whole. Their primary frame of reference is pop music from the 1960s-1970s but those musical debts don’t consign them to retro status. The exotic careening art-rock of “Thorazine Bender” boasts a distinct lo-fi approach, yes, and there is a definite elasticity in Phoenix and Berry’s regard for formal rules about playing to the arrangement.
Nonetheless, however, it’s a cavalcade of musical twists and unexpected detours that keep listeners on their toes. Phoenix’s songwriting is largely instrumental, but the lyrics reflect the same outlier take on composition defining the music as well. We are in recognizable territory, without question, but Instant Smile’s “Thorazine Bender” slaps a new coat of paint on time-tested elements.
The duo’s audacious take on the early Yes classic “Time and a Word” works. Phoenix dials into the song’s inherently hopeful nature and while he cannot reach the same heights as Jon Anderson, Phoenix’s singing masters the needed emotion and gives his interpretation an edge of earnestness listeners will enjoy. Echoes of surf rock permeate the first quarter of “Crazy” before this Berry-penned tune reveals added influences such as punk, straight-ahead rock, and pop. Berry’s plaintive voice packs plenty of rock and roll verve and there’s an exploratory spirit inhabiting this performance that makes it perfect for the stage. It isn’t difficult hearing Instant Smile stretching out on any of these tunes.
Their improbable cover of Deep Purple’s “No No No” from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band’s Fireball album upends the funky hard rock theatrics of Purple’s take on the track in favor of riff-driven and alt-rock/punk-inspired power pop. Such a description, really, doesn’t even begin to do it justice. The angular, bare-bones attack that Instant Smile takes with this track and its predecessors has no immediate antecedent in the contemporary rock music scene. You can’t help but commend them for utterly revamping this obscure Purple gem – what’s the point of carbon copy covers except tribute, besides, Instant Smile isn’t Deep Purple, and vice versa.
4 x 2 is a brief yet compelling listen. Greg Phoenix and Erin Berry enjoy rare creative parity that isn’t a token act but, instead, a reflection that they realize the whole is greater than its individual parts. Instant Smile is clocking in at a decade as an ongoing musical unit and this EP doesn’t sound like any holding action. They sound as vital as ever and their creativity burns bright. We can expect them to remain a part of the current landscape for many more years to come.
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