Chapel Hill indie rockers forgo bells and whistles and rely on the quality of the songwriting to woo their listeners on this debut record.
Erie Choir is the brain-child of Eric Roehrig, a Chapel Hill, North Carolina songwriter who also plays in Sorry About Dresden. Over the course of the last five years he's been compiling Slighter Awake, a record that draws on the talents of a group of local musicians from bands like the Nein, Shark Quest, and the White Octave. The result doesn't quite fill his sound out to the choir-like proportions that the name might suggest, but it does manage to produce a record's worth of crisp, clean, indie rock with a folk-pop flavor.
Slighter Awake opens with its best song, "The Ballad of Erie Choir". It's a bright and poppy tune, beginning as nothing more than a couple of gentle acoustic guitars and Reohrig's stubbornly optimistic vocals: "I'm feeling alright / I'm feeling alright / This feeling is fleeting and now its retreating / But still I don't mind." By the halfway point in the song, the guitars have taken it up a notch, reinforcing their toe-tapping rhythm. Toss in a few ooh's and la's and "The Ballad of Erie Choir" is nearly perfect in its simplicity.
While the rest of the album's 38 minutes never quite live up to the first song, Erie Choir never wanders far from that basic aesthetic. Each song is well-written and efficiently produced. There aren't many bells and whistles or production tricks -- things we've almost come to expect from 21st century indie pop. Instead, Roehrig relies on shifts in emphasis and songwriting style to keep the listener interested. And for the most part, it works. One song leans toward indie folk-pop, the next toward alt rock; one has a bit of a country twang, another a gentler feel.
Even Roehrig's voice is hard to pin down. It's more subtle, but to someone who didn't know Erie Choir's background, it might be difficult to tell whether they were American or British. For the first few songs, his vocals sound like typical American-brand indie pop, but by the time the fourth song -- "Trunion Pick" -- rolls around, it's taken on a hint of a British accent. In fact, with some Britpop-friendly chord progressions behind him, he doesn't sound unlike Super Furry Animals' frontman Gruff Rhys. The very next track, "Lullaby for Jon Grives", takes it even further, sounding quite a bit like a SFA song with the wall of fuzzy distortion stripped away. Of course, by the time you think you've got Roehrig's Britpop influences pegged, there's another shift; before long, you're miles away enjoying the banjo and slide guitar-driven "Woken Up, Broken Up".
That Roehrig has managed to seamlessly stitch together such a wide variety of styles within the Erie Choir sound is probably Slighter Awakes' most notable achievement -- and a testament to the quality of his songwriting. At a time in indie music when we seem to be in the middle of an arms race of instrumentation and production effects -- when its not unheard of to come across a 40-piece orchestra, a Hungarian choir, or a gaggle of backward voices on a record -- it's refreshing to hear one that relies almost entirely on the quality of its songwriting to woo its listeners. Slighter Awake is a simple record and it might not grab your ear the first time you hear it, but it is the kind of album that grows on you with every listen. It's not a tour de force, but it does have a lot of interesting texture. These songs may not be epic masterpieces, but they are the kind that you can become attached to; the kind that gradually work their way inside you and feel familiar, like home.