It may not be the most challenging record you will hear this year, but it has a kindness and charm that is hard to resist.
In the right stage of inebriation everything that isn't immediately offensive sounds pretty good. The critical filter gets turned way down, making even the most middling work noteworthy. I can't count the number of times I've been disappointed or made suspect music purchases based on music that I've heard in bars, or at shows. The first time I heard Meredith Bragg and the Terminals was in just such a state. And I liked it, a lot.
When I actually received Volume 1 to review, I was skeptical. Would it hold up to those initial impressions? I had been burned before. Fortunately, Volume 1 did not disappoint. Anchored by Bragg's acoustic strumming and gentle voice, and laced with cello and piano, the songs captured here have an understated beauty. Bragg's voice has a vulnerable touch and his songs boast a directness that make them hard not to be drawn to, similar to those of Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard.
"My Only Enemy" is the first standout track on Volume 1. Acoustic guitars and sparse piano drift over gentle cello and splashing drums before Bragg enters with earnest lyrics. The refrain, "Say I am my only enemy / Would it be right to fight on my own / What if I fumble the simplest things / Would you stay and wait by the phone," echoes a recurring feeling of self-doubt that runs through most of the songs on the album.
Of all the tracks on Volume 1 that could possibly have worked their way onto a Death Cab for Cutie album, "Work and Winter" is the one I would vote most likely to succeed. It is quintessential indie melodrama. Singing of the last blissful moments of a youthful relationship, Bragg has crafted an anthem for young lovers everywhere. And in fighting off the feeling it is ending, he is thinking only of the touch of his lover. "But for now," he sings, "that's the last thought in my mind / Laying on the grass smiling at the passers by / Smiling as I feel our bodies align / Yours and mine."
Volume 1 isn't without fault. At their best, the songs are both graceful and engaging; however, at times the record becomes so subdued that it slips into a faint hue, creating a melancholy ambiance.
Through the middle part of the record, songs like "Early Sign" and "I Won't Let You Down" slip unnoticed into the background. While the latter suffers primarily from its seven-plus minutes of length, "Early Sign" simply fails to make an impression. Similarly, "Cindy's Song" mopes along with no noticeable changes in melody or tempo. Even in its brevity, it becomes monotonous.
There is redemption in the form of "Carolina". The strongest track on the album is tucked away in the number nine slot. On "Carolina" Bragg sings, "Just when I thought this moment was winding down the drums kicked in," then -- you bet -- the drums kick in. Though it may be a little campy, I couldn't have expressed a more accurate sentiment. I was starting to lose some faith in what I initially thought was a really good record. "Carolina" and the album's closer quickly restored my faith. "Shattering" is a relatively simple ballad that opens with a singular piano line, before blossoming into the fullest song on the album, effectively carrying the album out on a high note.
Though, the album is enjoyable and holds up to multiple listens, Meredith Bragg doesn't write the kind of music that is going to make you stand up and shout to the heavens. They aren't breaking any new ground. Instead he and the Terminals have opted for a far more subtle approach, making music that sounds more comfortable than challenging. They make music that is sweet sounding and relaxing. Sometimes that is the most enjoyable kind.