Forget that spring is currently struggling to wrest the hemisphere from the stubborn clutches of its cold older brother; Northampton Massachusetts’s folk-pop heroes Winterpills write songs that appropriately enough lend a chill to the air, not for a lack of emotional resonance, but for a crispness in their performances that is the opposite of the relaxed, languorous quality in music born of heat and humidity. Their second album, The Light Divides, builds on the nascent strengths of their self-titled debut, with more hauntingly beautiful male-female harmonies, quiet yearning, and delicate yet determined arrangements. Think kindred spirits Ida removed from Brooklyn and relocated to the fields, farms, and old mill towns of western Massachusetts and you can begin to imagine some of what’s going on here, and why the band has been steadily gaining momentum nationwide for its highly evocative sound.
Winterpills is comprised of several singer-songwriters impressive in their own right—Dennis Crommett, Flora Reed, and Philip Price—with Price taking the lion’s share of pen and vocal duties for this particular project. But the expertise of all three, with the help of Dave Hower (drums), Jose Ayerve (bass), and Brian Akey (ditto) shines through every tightly crafted piece. Each knows how to communicate the central, defining pith of a song via words and melody, rather than emoting or bombast, and The Light Divides is consequently an engaging record of often substantial beauty. The opener, “Lay Your Heartbreak”, is a prime example, with a gently lurching tempo and upper register vocals. The rhythms hesitate then flow, making singing along to lines “You could make me feel so good / If you’d come here and cry” irresistible. That sentiment, the bizarre romantic hero fantasy of being a shoulder to cry on, is fine, relatively rare territory for relationship-based pop songs, and typical of Winterpills’ insightful approach.
The uptempo “Broken Arm”, offered twice on The Light Divides (the second time as a radio-friendly hidden track edited for language), goes after the current commander-in-chief from a wounded veteran’s point of view, “The decider says I’m a fighter / But I can’t feel my fucking legs”. The charged language is effective by itself, but even more so as delivered coolly and precisely by Price. “A Ransom” is another highlight, featuring a gorgeously cascading melody again serving unsettling lyrics. Price and Reed sing “On the day you were born / All the birds flew from the corn / And the sky grew gray / On the night you left home / A crack appeared in the dome / And it rained all day / This is what you will wear to the end of the world” as if they were paying the sweetest compliments. Bells chime and harmonies swirl, and all feels right with the world, but something troubling is always lurking.
Comparisons have been prevalent between Winterpills and Elliott Smith since the Pills’ debut, but the similarities are mostly sonic. Where Smith’s tunes wore their emotions big and bold on their sleeves, Winterpills are more subtle, balanced. Reed’s “Handkerchiefs” trades in Smith-standard double-tracked vocals and rippling, folksy jangle, but the tone is less jarring and desperate than that of say, “Baby Britain”. Her melodies are carefully composed into the shimmering flow of the guitars and the ambling pace of the drums, and therefore the emotions inseparable from them—a key component of what makes Winterpills an effective band, rather than a showcase for different singer-songwritery moods. There’s enough enjoyment to be had following Price’s voice on its journey up to falsetto on “You Don’t Live Long Enough” without even worrying about the story being told. But when the sugary rush of Winterpills’s catchiness finally becomes so familiar as to reveal lyrics, the songs only endear more.
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