The sounds of modern rock radio get filtered through the polite yearnings of modest young men on Blackwater '64's debut EP. Absent is the overblown bravado or dude-rock posturing that clouds so much guitar-driven rock music -- singer and guitarist Ben Martsolf doesn't achieve profundity in his lyrics, but his full-throated delivery on a song like opening track "Dancing With Your Ghost" evinces a palpable ache.
Opening the EP with a ballad is a ballsy move, especially one that features some back-and-forth with guest vocalist Amy Snyder; in the leadoff spot, it forecasts some romantic drama that isn't all that present on the rest of the six-song program. But the song does tip the band's hand a bit -- it likes to employ moody dynamics without sacrificing the beat, and lead guitarist Aaron Bickel favors clean melodic lead lines over histrionics, which is a plus. His playing shows traces of Southern rock on "See You in Hell" (fitting for a song that name-checks "Sweet Home Alabama"), but Bickel and the rest of the band are able to tighten the reins and let the vocals ring clear. That's the M.O. for Blackwater '64, and luckily Martsolf has enough range and raspy grit in his voice to warrant that attention.
Blackwater '64 performing at the Beat Kitchen in Chicago
The EP gets bogged down a bit by the biggest bane of modern rock -- all the damned self-seriousness. There's a dourness on the edge of town here, and the EP doesn't balance out the gloom, even at its most energetic. "Army" might be the best example of Blackwater '64's tendency toward unearned heaviness. In the song, an old man and a young man share drinks and ideology, but the song makes no clear comment on the battles being waged within, either personal or political. This is Martsolf's biggest platform to either tell a compelling story or make a trenchant observation, but it manages to sidestep both options in favor of a big chorus.
Above it all, though, he's a likable vocalist backed by a band capable of nuanced performance -- the rootsy shuffle on closing cut "Bridges" suggests a different band altogether. Judging from this competent but limited debut, it will be worth sticking around to see what kind of band Blackwater '64 becomes.
Listen to a track off of the new album below:
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