[1 April 2014]
Instead of doubling down on the sunny 1960s folk-pop that dominated their first album, the Belle Brigade opted to modernize a bit: Their sophomore album, Just Because, finds them taking on a slightly darker indie edge. Backboned with lush layers and driven by dreamy rhythms, the brother-sister-led band takes a turn and probably for the better. Drummer Barbara and guitarist Ethan Gruska — whose grandfather is Star Wars/Indiana Jones/Home Alone composer and several time Academy Award winner John Williams — show their versatility, displaying a sharper perspective, including some wry humor that takes swipes at society’s contradictions. But, they definitely held onto their strengths: Just Because still has plenty of the Belle Brigade’s signature harmony-heavy hooks.
Kicking off with an unexpected bit of electronic psychedelia, the opening track “Ashes” makes you question whether you’re listening to the right album for a second, but as the ominous, primitive drumming leads into their unmistakable voices weaving around one another, it becomes obvious that you’re just in for some different than what you imagined. From the beginning, it’s clear that the album is going to be a lot less quirky and whimsical. “You light the fire, but you don’t keep it alive / It cools down, you get tired / And the red turns to white / All the ashes in the air can be collected and confined and to the shape we used to make / But the weight is gone,” begins “Ashes”, opening a new chapter for the Belle Brigade.
As is the story with a lot of young bands, working with a heavy-handed label turned into a debut album that they would eventually sort of resent, despite its success. “My friends told me, ‘I can’t hear you in the record.’ The album kind of defined us to the world — or the part of the world that heard us — but in a way it was actually kind of uncharacteristic,” Barbara recently told the Los Angeles Times. For Just Because, they switched to ATO Records, Dave Matthews’ laid-back, artist-friendly indie label.
Relying more on melody than vocal range, Just Because tones everything down, but is considerably more dense, applying the siblings’ pop prowess to a sound that will find them on less radio stations and featured on more blogs. The first five songs are particularly strong, as the album follows “Ashes” with a stuck-without-satisfaction anthem (“When Everything Was What It Was”), a dive into darkness (“Likely to Use Something”), a satirical punch (“Be Like Him”) and a dreary nostalgia-trip (“Miss You in My Life”). The second half of the album is less cohesive and more experimental, but, by picking up the tempo, it keeps everything moving well enough to stay out of a rut.
Whether it’s maturity or freedom or both, Just Because is a clear step forward for the Belle Brigade. It has more bite and seems to be more sincere, which will probably take them a long way, as they continue to figure out who they are.