[14 February 2008]
The Epochs (that’s EEEE-Pox) are a rock band, yes they are. They’re new—four young guys currently from Brooklyn—and they play original music drawing from the stream of a thousand influences no doubt well-represented on their various iPods. There are hundreds of bands like the Epochs in cities the world over. They’ve written verses and choruses, they’ve marshaled electronics and instruments, and they’ve snatched vocal influences from John Lennon to Ray Charles and back. Why is their full-length debut any more notable than scores of others? Maybe scores of others from Brooklyn alone?
The case for paying attention to—and enjoying—The Epochs is in the accomplished and compelling songs and arrangements. This collection of 11 cool and propulsive indie-pop songs has a cohesive sense of identity. The Epochs, led by Hays and Ryan Holladay, two brothers from the Washington, DC, suburbs, assemble their influences without the self-conscious collaging familiar from hip-hop. Rather, these arrangements blend electronic textures and samples with decidedly analog pleasures: strummed acoustic guitar, vintage keyboard sounds, a small string section, inviting blue-eyed soul singing. The songs are cohesive, with melodies and arrangements that belong to each other. For all their modern touches, these songs have vintage virtues.
“Love Complete” starts with an impossibly catchy lick over a syncopated groove. The verse has you, then the chorus lifts off with strings swirling and the vocals doubled and rising. If the arrangement could only have been born in a 2008 world of sampled sounds and synthesized blips, then it’s also true that the chorus—including the infectious repeated out-chorus—brings to mind Detroit in the 1960s. The lyrics here and elsewhere are pleasingly direct, the way pop songs ought to be.
On this song and many others, the Holladay brothers’ whispery but soulful vocals have a way of sneaking up on you. “Picture of the Sun”, a propulsive rocker with a stuttering drum groove, is typical. The vocals are doubled and sung in a mixture of falsetto and whispered chest voice. As they repeat “Sunlight all night long” over the band’s increasingly urgent and layered arrangement, the focus of the singing rises up and pierces into you. On the other hand, the vocal on “Head in the Fire” is less stylized but still works. Starting over acoustic guitar, the vocal has a folk immediacy that is buoyed by both a quiet electronic warble and a simple string part. Here as elsewhere, the arrangements smartly use wordless “ooooh"s and “aahhh"s to good effect. And while none of the singing is traditionally powerful or big-voiced, it has no trouble occupying the foreground of the best songs. “Stand Up and Be Counted” is a terrific pop song in any context, and the Holladays trust their layered vocals to stand nearly alone in certain spots, then bringing back the whole band, including a hip countermelody on bells.
Not every song goes for the pop jugular, which is a relief. “Mister Fog” is more typically indie sounding, perhaps—with a slow metronomic rhythm pushing along a succession of chords that support a melody that seems one part Lennon and one part… Bee Gees? However you hear it, it has a psychedelic slyness. The opening song, “Thunder and Lightning”, has a more industrial lurch to it, with the drummer Kotchy setting up a tribal groove on drums and the guitars and piano crunching more insistently. Even here, though, the Epochs are working on more than one level—strings soar up over the banging, and whole enterprise will suddenly quiet to a whisper before revving up again.
Those who are still having trouble hearing it and want the inevitable comparative descriptions might think about TV on the Radio, Radiohead, or possibly Beck in one of his flippy/soulful incarnations. But the strength of The Epochs is in how it all hangs together as the product of what is plainly a long-time collaboration between the two brothers. Their two-voices-as-one sound blends in the studio with a distinct band sound. With electro-bleeps, violin/viola, and traditional rock instrumentation getting equal play in the mix, the Epochs cleverly dodge a genre pigeonhole and play directly to their strength—the songs themselves. At the same time, the variety of sounds isn’t random. This album sounds, in every phase, like itself.
If the band bio makes it sound like you’ve heard these guys a million times before—they formed in New York, they woodshedded in an abandoned building in Seattle, they headed back to Brooklyn, they played at the Knitting Factory, they recorded an album—the document itself will give your ears the pleasant sting of enjoyment.
Of course, it’s a virtual lottery out there for new rock bands, even truly good ones like the Epochs. Here’s hoping they’re holding onto a winning ticket.