At their best, the seams of Pretty Little Empire's gentle, Americana-fringed songs become stretched, torn and frayed. In concert, the quartet toys with the twin forces of restraint and release, and lead singer and guitarist Justin Johnson's tomato-red face often shows the physical evidence of that joyful strain. On its second album, Reasons and Rooms, Pretty Little Empire benefits from better production, sweeter harmonies and varied song styles, but it doesn't lose that simmering penchant for modest but effective upheaval.
The record succeeds by building on the simple but distinct style that the band cultivated on its debut, Sweet Sweet Hands. The rolling drums and circular guitar picking of opener "Now Is Not the Time" recall the shambling but affecting folk-rock of the band's earlier work, but a rollicking chorus shows nascent traces of rock & roll grandeur. "Islands (NC)" pairs brokedown balladry with echoing guitar lines and wheezing organ chords, and the breakneck "Dakotas" is a fun, strummy sing-along.
In tinkering with its stylistic approach, Pretty Little Empire occasionally misses the mark. "Cinnamon Toast" sounds like a nostalgia trip to 2002 New York, a Strokes/Rapture hybrid that gets dragged under by dated tropes and buried vocals. The band gets more inventive with atmospherics on the album's biggest stylistic gamble, "Mornings Been Hard." The song has a hypnotic, nearly robotic drumbeat, anchored piano chords and distant, EBowed guitar; it maintains Pretty Little Empire's thumbprint while it introduces new nuances to the band's sound. A transitional album, Reasons shows a group that's both comfortable in its own skin and fearless enough to shed it from time to time.
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