"Indie? Narco-Country?" That's the question posed by Berkeley quartet Winter's Fall on their web site, and it's one that could be asked of a number of the bands dominating alternative music today. In recent years, groups like My Morning Jacket, Band of Horses and Fleet Foxes have emerged as the spiritual successors to Neil Young and his CSN brethren, mixing reverb-saturated vocals and twangy guitars into music that's firmly rock-pop but with an introspective emotional core. From the moment you hear singer Peter Stanley's voice, it's apparent that Winter's Fall draws from this same lineage, but the band's first full length album, self-released earlier this year, features strong songwriting and a warm atmospheric feel that have it quickly becoming one of my favorite Bay Area records of the year.
Winter's Fall was formed by Peter Stanley and childhood friend Keith Gidlund about two years ago, so it's a little surprising how self-assured and fully realized the new CD sounds. The group's 2007 Muddy & White EP hinted at this talent, featuring some good songs hampered by production that obscured their pop charms. Thankfully, a bunch of those tracks were rerecorded for the self-titled new record, and they're markedly improved by a clean sound that perfectly captures the band's swooning layers.
A few of the band's more driving rock songs, like the anthemic "Blame" and "Hillside," kick off the CD, but the vocal harmonies, keyboards and slide guitar add an melodic pop beauty even when the group is at its most electric. There's a mini-epic quality to songs like the big rock ballad "Paper Chains," which transforms a lethargic groove into a crashing wave of rock and roll, and the band does build-and-decay awfully well. Album highlight "Unusual Ways" is a subtle, moving song reminiscent of the winding emotional work of Sunny Day Real Estate, and its moody keyboards and echoey guitars build to an energetic climax. As on the rest of the album, Stanley's lyrics are indirect on the track, but his fragmentary images capture loneliness and heartbreak with a melancholy befitting his world-weary voice.
The album's second half sees the band playing with their sound a bit, incorporating some great horns on "Muddy and White" and a surf rock-sounding electric guitar on "These Ivory Days." If the first half's vibe was more firmly country rock, the back end eclecticism is reminiscent of the ominverous approach of Calexico, and there's a particularly Southwestern feel to the guitar lines and cowbell of "On Wisdom." These later songs suggest that the quartet is able to mine more experimental territory, and it's a definitely a direction worth continuing in. As it stands, the meticulously stacked layers and tight songwriting demonstrate a certain pop efficacy, but given a song like "Lonely You" and its hypnotically wandering trumpet and reversed guitar sounds, it's tough not to want the band to really experiment with the outer reaches of their atmospheric approach. That's a minor complaint, though, for a collection of songs this good.