Saying it might be too little, too late in regards to a band in which the oldest members just recently discovered the joy of being able to legally purchase a six-pack of Bud might seem a little odd, but it might be the case with the Willowz. On the prolific young Anaheim quartet’s third album (their second was released a mere three months earlier), they whip up a confident, spirited brand of blues-y garage punk that a few years ago might have pegged them as the Next Big Thing. But faster than you can say “Mr. Brightside”, the garage rock revival ushered in by the Strokes and the White Stripes back in 2001 has given way to an ‘80s revival, complete with faux hawks and dance beats galore.
But it’s probably not wise to count the Willowz out yet, as they do have some factors working in their favor. For one, they have a pretty great story of semi-discovery that’s sure to tickle the mainstream press’s fancy, and also gained them an influential fan. When director Michel Gondry was looking for music to include in last year’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, he had his mind set on the White Stripes. When Jack White didn’t give his permission, Gondry went looking for an unknown band with a similar sound. He found the Willowz, loved what he heard, ended up using a song of theirs in the scene where Kirsten Dunst (and, sure, Mark Ruffalo) bounced around in their underwear, and put two of their songs on the otherwise Jon Brion-heavy soundtrack. Gondry would then go on to direct a video for the band.
More importantly, the Willowz prove to be more than just a one-trick pony on Talk in Circles. Much of the album consists of high-octane garage rock that the Willowz give the proper amount of exuberance you’d expect from a group this young. This batch of songs is fun, if a bit interchangeable. But chief songwriter Richie James Follin shows some welcome diversity that hints at a lasting presence. “Unveil” sounds like it could be from a 1969 album that Tommy James recorded with the MC5 as his backing band. The guitars seamlessly shift from shimmering reverb to straight-up fuzz, and the mid-tempo rhythm helps distinguish the song from many others on the album. The same can be said for “Making Certain”, a chugging, hook-filled anthem that uses the Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks” as a blueprint. Bassist Jessica Reynoza takes over lead vocals on “Blind Story”, and her soothing voice serves as a perfect respite from Follin’s (more on that in a bit). The swirling flute gives the songs a late-‘60s psych-folk feel, but it’s not gratuitous. All of these foundations are readily apparent, but the Willowz do a good job of making sure the influences don’t overtake their sound.
The record’s two main flaws go hand in hand. At 20 songs clocking in at over an hour, Talk in Circles is obscenely long. One can appreciate the youthful braggadocio that would lead the group—specifically Follin—to believe that it was necessary to include 20 tracks, but it just doesn’t work. By the time it gets to song 15 or 16, the band has said basically everything it has to say, and the proceedings just get tiresome. A big reason for that is Follin’s voice. Like Jack White (a Sympathy for the Record Industry alum himself), Follin possesses a shrill, piercing wail that’s a distant descendent of Robert Plant’s. Taken in small doses it presents no problems, but after an hour it seriously starts to grate. His uninspiring if inoffensive lyrics don’t make it any easier to endure. Rhyme schemes clearly take precedent over content, but given the medium Follin is working in, that’s hardly a great fault.
The fact that the garage rock revival seems to have passed might actually be best for the Willowz in the long run. It would have been easy for them to use their Hollywood connections and sound du jour to take a stab at overnight success. But with that scenario seeming increasingly unlikely, the group will have to earn whatever success comes to them. There are enough high points on Talk in Circles to make that seem like a real possibility. If the group can fully transfer its album-length ambitions to its songwriting and performance, then they’ll really be on to something.