If you want a CD for a house party, I suggest this album by Trails and Ways. First, though guests probably won’t know it, they’ll like it on first listen because the songs are catchy, beginning with the opening number, “Skeletons”, which has light percussive drumming and bright synthesizers. Second, everyone will dance, and they’ll be dancing to songs that are sung in English, Portuguese, and Spanish. How cool is that?
Signed recently to the excellent small label in Seattle, Barsuk Records, Trails and Ways has released Pathology as their debut album, though they’ve been doing smaller scale projects for several years. The band — Keith Brown, Hannah Van Loon, Emma Oppen, and Ian Quirk — met in college at University of California, Berkeley, but they only began playing music together after they had graduated and then several members returned from being abroad in Brazil and Spain. As Trails, the band self-released the EP Territorial in 2011; with their current line-up, they became Trails and Ways and added the DIY EPs Temporal in 2012 and Trilingual in 2013.
Listening to this full-length album that reflects the band’s growth, you hear occasionally a Beach House vibe on their slower and more lush songs, and a Walk the Moon drive on their up tempo numbers. Perhaps the best comparison is to the happy synthesizers and harmonies of Belle and Sebastian, though most of the time I think that I’m just hearing something pretty new. In an interview several years ago, Brown said the band’s “ears are definitely open to the rest of the world, and not just what happens in the Anglophone world”. Brown lived in Brazil and was exposed to and likes Brazilian pop and bossa nova. But these aren’t the only world influences, which stream in from Europe and Africa primarily through the unusual percussion and beats.
The songs are made for dancing — and my favorites from the album are the more up-tempo numbers such as “Nunca”, “Jacaranda”, and, in particular, “Mtn Tune” — but the lyrics are carefully crafted. “Jacaranda”, a pop-sounding song about a person who has become disenchanted with Los Angeles, includes the unusual line “The city is a diaspora unto itself”. “Nunca” has intriguing poetic images, with the speaker saying to a presumed lover: “Show me your Sao Paulo / I wanna know where you hide out / Where you paint graffiti – I’ll follow / Show me shapes, spiral lines I can’t translate / Leave your mark, felt tip pen, your tag, my chest”.
Many lyrics are enigmatic, however, not revealing their origins or meanings. For example, the speaker in “Skeletons” sings “I know when they come to dig us up / I know what they’ll find / Skeletons dancing, at the scene of the crime”. Brown has related in an interview that he got the idea for the song while playing on stage, seeing the energy of the dancers, and suddenly thinking “we were having this bacchanal in the middle of planetary destruction”. In interviews and press releases, band members talk frequently about environmental politics. Trails and Ways has asked fans to donate to Our Power Campaign, a project attempting to fight climate change and to provide jobs in vulnerable communities. Keith Brown has begun a non-profit organization about climate change called Float Map, which according to its website, shows the projected impacts of unchecked climate change on American homes, businesses, and communities.
I admire Trails and Ways for their personal politics and how, as they have said, they are trying to be an ethical band. What isn’t apparent yet is how they will do more than talk about such matters in interviews — how, that is, they might create songs that without being didactic introduce social justice issues. That’s hard to do. Many people argue that politics tends to ruin art, and while I disagree with that sentiment, it’s difficult to have a complex lyric heard well when the music accompanying the message turns the body on and the mind off. The songs here bury the potentially political messages by having lyrics that are interesting but oblique, by having dance rhythms and pop arrangements.
Pathology is a fun record, well worth owning. The band seems devoted to introducing world rhythms into American pop, and perhaps they should just follow that path. Or perhaps, next time out, they’ll have figured out how to include the political and social more directly into their lyrics, making their world views match their world sounds.