California, here we come. Ryan Beal, mastermind behind Norse Horse, is certainly interested in evoking a specific sense of place – though his caramel-coated Calif. may be a bit of a stretch. In Grids, Norse Horse creates, basically, a sound familiar to indie rock listeners of 2011, though the band has its eyes on the skies with its echoed production and spacey synth noise. Leaning toward nostalgia – specifically, toward protest rock like the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn” – Norse Horse drop the distortion from their guitars, harmonize the vocals, and for the most part play it safe. Falling short (perhaps on purpose) of the honeyed sound of Real Estate, but picking up on the same sonic themes, Norse Horse is more interested in surprise than all-out pop assault. But there’s plenty of pop to be had here – whatever the twists and turns it takes to get there, Grids ends up in the sunny West Coast, with sounds tailored for that Hipstamatic slide show you’ve been meaning to post for weeks now.
That’s not to say the band’s sound is completely cookie-cutter or expected. While many of the tropes that comprise a typical track on this EP are fairly ordinary, Beal often turns those standards on their ears, breaking the pop structures up with odd bridges or by splitting a song down the middle. It’s a turn toward accessibility from the band’s full-length, 2009’s Secret Geographies, which was a little more interested in weirding out than in crafting pop structures. Despite its surprises, Grids is mostly smoother, with more emphasis on production and clarity. By trading some of that DIY scratchiness for the studio’s cleanliness, the EP makes for solid, hooky music – though revolution it ain’t.
“Swells” is pretty indicative of the bubblegummy tune that characterizes the EP as a whole. The guitars are sweet – as in, they taste like Pixy Stix and sunshine. Beal’s voice is high and wistful, almost childlike. The accompanying music video makes visual that calliope sound – as long as you can forgive it for those groan-inducing Monty Python cutouts. Halfway through, though, the tempo stabilizes and we’re rewarded with a jammy bass line and a curtain of synth that falls over the last thirty seconds or so. It’s an indication that Beal has an ear for how to add value to a song that otherwise threatens to overwhelm with cuteness.
The trance-state of the second half of “Swells” recalls the album’s opening track, “Moonbeams,” the plodding guitars and chanting vocals of which cultivate a similar effect. The vocals can fall a bit flat at time, but that may be the point – it’s a mimetic trick, reflecting the off-kilter nature of the song as a whole. Unlike “Swells,” this track is consistent in structure, and while it’s catchy enough, it’s not necessarily a pleasant tune to walk around with all day. In the same way, “Sun Corridor” isn’t flattering for Beal or the backing vocals (nor is the imagery pretty – “Bodies will soon decay / dissolve into disarray”), and the strain ultimately lends the song a first-effort demo quality.
Unexpected is instrumental track “Starshores,” an ambient, synth-heavy head-in-the-cotton-candy-clouds lullaby. The needling, spidery guitar lines are grating, but it’s the kind of move we come to expect from Beal, who’s never content without a dash of dissonance. “Almost” feels like a culmination of the EP’s disparate motions, incorporating tempo shifts, noticeable bass, creeping and spindly guitar lines, synth-skirls and tympani rolls. It shows Beal at his best – as an arranger, a composer, as an artist who finds the most pleasure in bringing together numerous, otherwise distant sounds. Stepping away from that guitar-driven Cali-pop sound and letting his ambition run wild like it does in “Almost” might have yielded an altogether different – and better – set of songs.