(Self-released, vinyl, digital download)
Franklin County's Near North formed from the discarded pieces of the now — defunct alt-country band Hell or High Water in, as the band puts it in their website bio, "a delicious haze of whiskey- breath and snowflakes." Now a power trio, the band is set to release its second EP, On the Rafters. A follow-up to its 2012 debut EP, Get Loud, the record finds the group further shedding its previous dusty twang and honing in on a guitar-centric brand of driving alt-rock built on sturdy hooks and fiery riffs.
The EP opens on "The Hots" and a searing guitar line that winks at You in Reverse-era Built to Spill. Guitarist and lead vocalist John Nicholls employs a similarly ethereal lyrical bent as BTS' Doug Martsch. Nicholls' vocal work, set over a driving burst of guitar and drums, is energetic and impassioned.
"Tonight" begins as an anguished acoustic number about lost love. It's pretty and potent, with Nicholls' gritty delivery increasing in intensity as the band follows suit, building to a fuzzed-out guitar apex before receding back to lilting acoustic guitar. The song explodes again at the finish, riding a heat-seeking, three-note guitar riff that evokes plenty of heartache despite its lean simplicity.
Side A of the EP closes in suspect fashion with "Off to Be On." Fueled by honky-tonk piano, the song is a jarring aesthetic change from the preceding guitar fuzz. It also presents Nicholls' least effective vocal performance. Rather than the measured ferocity he displays on the previous cuts, here he's too loose and often out of tune.
The band rebounds on Side B opener "Home." A prickly, staccato guitar progression teases a meandering swell of keyboard, which in turn creates a sinister groove paired with Chris MacKinnon's insistent drums. Nicholls matches the mood with an ominous vocal delivery.
Following a danceable and appropriately nervy detour into disco-punk on "Dancing Nervous," the EP closes on "Left." The melancholy, mid-tempo rocker suggests some time spent with Ryan Adams' 2004 record Love Is Hell. It also suggests that, while Near North have mostly put their alt-country leanings aside, they haven't completely abandoned them. It's a fine close to a promising second effort.
Near North celebrate the release of On the Rafters with a show at the Monkey House in Winooski this Saturday, August 9.