- smalltalker, Walk Tall
(Self-released, digital download)
Burlington-based soul band smalltalker are not as idle and awkward as their name suggests. The group's debut EP, Walk Tall, bustles with the virtues of communication and confidence, affable skills that keep this band connected. The four-song EP credits an ambitious lineup of 10 core musicians, plus two rotating members. Although smalltalker have only a handful of recordings, the band's live performance is already well embraced, earning them a season full of festival dates this summer, including Grand Point North, the Frendly Gathering and Otis Mountain Get Down.
Walk Tall opens with "Looking." A warm wave of organ and vocal harmonization leads into a burst of brass and a soul-rocking bass line. In contrast to this self-assured start, bassist and vocalist Mike Dondero admits, "I try to play it cool / it turns out I'm not so smooth." Silky and precise, the sound heavily evokes Steely Dan's tight party grooves. The band carries itself like a sustainable commune, each member holding space for each other's talent to shine.
"To Change" enters with popping funk bass, danceable percussion and flawless falsetto vocals from guitarist Nico Osborne. The brass section moves fluidly in and out of the track while almost imperceptible sparkles of guitar and keys hover in the background, creating a lush and dynamic field. Toward the end, the song breaks down for a Wurlitzer solo by keyboard wiz Danny Whitney. His licks sound like they streamed out of a time machine, before gracefully receding as the tune lingers on in a beautiful vocal section.
"Uncle Milt's Mediation Room" references the unusual practice space that brought the band together. It's an instrumental interlude instructed by J Dilla's laid-back style, featuring Jacob Ungerleider on reverb-washed keys. The track is an opportunity for the listener to catch a breather, but it seems like a sentimental inclusion — and a missed opportunity for a vocal freestyle by one of the band's supremely talented singers.
The EP culminates with "Cassius," a song that calls upon Muhammad Ali's birth name and spirit of resistance. Rolling hand drums and a bluesy bass riff with '90s radio-soul vibes set the scene. When the rest of the band enters, the piece moves into conversational jazz terrain. Rob Debruyn offers a downright sultry sax solo before the song rises into a triumphant victory lap of the chorus.
Throughout, vocalist Stephanie Heaghney's pen is as sharp as her tongue as she leads the track with fierce power, backed by Claire Sammut's controlled soprano. Heaghney's lyrics electrify the band's purpose, elevating smalltalker's sound from catchy yet slightly derivative to penetrating and inspiring.
Walk Tall by smalltalker is available at smalltalker.bandcamp.com.