- Derek O'Kanos, Spoken Roads
(Oak Honest Records, cassette, CD, digital)
Brattleboro has launched some of the best local bands in recent years — including Barishi, Witch and Thus Love — and the town continues to produce a diverse array of musical talent. The latest to emerge from Vermont's southern realms is singer-songwriter Derek O'Kanos with his sophomore effort, Spoken Roads.
O'Kanos' previous EP, 2021's On the Sleeve, was a mixed bag of promising potential and regurgitation of inspirations. While it was overall a decent record, the DNA of its songs was a little too easy to read at times. Though Spoken Roads is hardly a reinvention of his sound — it's still essentially a roots-rock record — O'Kanos has refined his songwriting process and gotten more clever about obscuring his influences. The result is a clearer representation of his songwriting and a less predictable, more engaging record.
"Simple Life" kicks off the EP and establishes a theme for Spoken Roads. O'Kanos is finding silver linings, looking for the bright side everywhere. A furiously strummed acoustic guitar figure is soon joined by one of those rousing folk-rock anthem beats straight out of the Lumineers' playbook. That kinetic energy carries through all of the EP's five tracks.
The strength of the songwriting on Spoken Roads is buoyed by clever arrangements and O'Kanos' instrumental prowess. His guitar playing is particularly sharp on the EP, both in the carefully layered rhythm parts and the searing leads. "Surrender" features some of his best playing, including a searing solo atop chugging power chords.
When songs are engaging but don't exactly break new musical ground, one hopes they'll draw some power from their lyrics. Unfortunately, O'Kanos tends to go for vague axioms and well-trodden tropes. In "What Good's a Feeling?," for example, he sings, "I sat down to write me a song / Surprised to see it didn't take that long / I guess I just had something to say / Until that feeling went away."
Much of the good in Spoken Roads comes from the general sunniness O'Kanos imparts to his songs, lending the EP a sort of haze. Tracks such as "Little Bird," a pop-leaning, radio-friendly number, and his closer, "The Word Love," are perfect fodder for a nice drive in the country or a cold drink by the water.
While O'Kanos doesn't exactly make "beer and lifestyle music" — as Thom Yorke famously described the work of Coldplay — it embodies the broader strokes of life, whether he's writing about love, loss or pouring himself another one. That's a tougher task than he makes it seem, and perhaps the biggest strength of Spoken Roads is how casually O'Kanos has created a well-produced, engaging and highly listenable record.
Spoken Roads comes out this Friday, September 2, at oakhonestrecords.com. O'Kanos plays a release party that same evening at Tine Restaurant in Brattleboro.