Rock ’n’ roll is crawling with duos these days.
The Kills. The Black Keys. White Mystery. Japandroids. The late, great White Stripes. And so forth. What is it about the current musical landscape that seems to favor this type of band? Is it the intimacy of a duo, the unique back-and-forth dynamic, the stripped-down sounds that inevitably result?
I imagine it’s all of the above. Whatever the reason, we can now add Grape Soda to the list. Grape Soda consists of two brothers, Mat and Ryan Lewis, who are based in the hallowed rock ’n’ roll ground of Athens, Ga. Mat sings and plays keyboards. Ryan plays drums. And with that, I’ve told you just about everything I knew about this band when I started listening to Form a Sign, its debut record.
I must admit I was skeptical at first about the band’s drums-keys approach. That might work for a song or two, I thought, but could they sustain it over an entire album without repeating the same hooks and textures over and over?
The answer, thankfully, is yes, yes, yes. Form a Sign delivers compact, catchy tunes that make a unified musical statement even as they swing from genre to genre, influence to influence. The 1980s seem to be a key touchstone for this band — I was reminded of such acts as the Police, XTC, and Devo as I listened. But the Lewis brothers never resort to simple rip-offery. They meld their influences into something new, something that’s their own.
Album opener “Not Mine” gets things started on a danceable note. The song pogos out of the gate with a driving drum beat before the fizzy keyboards come in and Mat Lewis sings lyrics that seem to reflect on personal (and maybe even societal) untrustworthiness: “You look at the reflection but it’s not mine / The image that you saw is just an outline”.
“Reason to Listen”, the next song, chugs along with a vibe that’s a little bit reggae, a little bit new wave. No wonder Mat’s vocals on this song — his best on the whole album —occasionally evoke Police-era Sting. Other highlights on the record include another reggae-flavored track, “Obvious Signs”, the infectious “Unaligned” with its irresistible beat and, “The Spirit”, a tasty slice of moody psychedelia.
I really liked Form a Sign. It’s full of bracing noise and stellar pop songcraft. And I was thrilled by the richness of the band’s overall sound — they find plenty of sonic real estate to explore within the drums-and-keys framework. Mat Lewis is not the most expressive or nuanced singer, but he has a warm, unpretentious style that works perfectly with these songs. (Though I wish the vocals didn’t come coated in so much echo.) Ryan Lewis, meanwhile, is a wizard at the keyboards, delivering fat, fuzzy organ fills and atmospheric synth lines with equal skill.
So yes, Grape Soda is another indie-rock duo to watch. I hope the Lewis brothers can keep this refreshing project going for a long time.