A CO-HEADLINED EVENING OF EMOTIVE, SOULFUL AND POP-CONSCIOUS SEATTLE ROCK SONGWRITING PROJECTS
$12 advance / $14 day of show
It was Christmas 2010 when Ryan Devlin (guitar, vocals) and Kim West (keys, vocals) first sang together. As the two approached their first holiday season as a newly-formed couple, they looked at their woefully underfunded bank accounts and their long list of family and friends. Gift cards and baked goods weren’t going to cut it that year. The two decided to combine their mutual love of music and record a few of their favorite non-holiday-holiday songs to create a CD as a DIY gift. Distributed to a few dozen friends and family, this lofi collection of covers contained the seeds of what would become Smokey Brights.
Flash forward to 2017, the two are are still singing. Now married, they’ve been recording and releasing music as Smokey Brights for six years. The couple’s North Seattle home, crammed full of thrift shop treasures and vintage instruments, is a constant bustle of songwriting, demo recording, BBQs, and band practice. Song ideas are shared over morning coffee and sketched into notebooks in the curiously small, window-less dining room at the center of their home, crowded with a 50s jukebox, a Wurlitzer 200A electric piano, guitar holsters, and the upright piano West grew up learning on, complete with a well worn sticker marking middle C.
The same vintage pastiche that adorns the band’s home is echoed in their songwriting. Make no mistake however, Smokey Brights aren’t old time revivalists or retro rock fetishists. The music is not fixed in any sort of idealized era, but instead playfully borrows from anything deemed interesting. “Their sound is a warm combination of charmingly lo-fi and charmingly retro; they’re willing to go simple and DIY, crank up the psychedelics or maybe play with ’60s spy-movie tones just for the fun of it. They’re about finding ways to enjoy the ride and remembering we’re all in it together.”- That Music Magazine. The result is a re-spinning of old fabrics: a dusty record bin eclecticism, a multi-faceted reimagining of pop culture.
Once songs are flushed out on guitar, piano, and voice, they make their way downstairs to the band’s wood-paneled practice room and take on new shapes and grooves at the hand of the full lineup. Jim Vermillion (bass) and Nick Krivchenia (drums) have been brothers in rhythm for the majority of their adult lives, playing in bands since they first met studying music at Evergreen State. Mike Kalnoky (lead guitar) provides unpredictable and experimental guitar lines that float deftly above this rock foundation, making the songs both deeper and stranger. Smokey Brights have been a collective unit for six years, growing tighter as friends and music makers along the way while releasing two full-length records and several 45s.
On their newest effort, Come to Terms (Freakout Records) Smokeys have worked closely with with British producer Sam Bell (R.E.M., Minus the Bear) to capture their most crystallized batch of songs yet. Come to Terms contains four songs about fresh divisions and the social chasms these divisions leave behind. Divisive politics, broken hearts, and absent dialogues are all brought to the surface and socially exercised. Though it’s is an airing of grievances, Come to Terms is not a record of despair, but instead invites the listener to snap out of it, start moving, and to rise above. In the final track of the record, The Other Way, West and Devlin sing, “This is not the time to turn your back on what you see. Find the strength in you, and I will find the good in me.” Smokey Brights will be touring in November through the West Coast and South West, and will be on the road extensively in 2018 in support of Come to Terms.
Shelby Earl’s first two albums earned the kind of raves any musician would kill for. Upon hearing her 2011 debut, Burn the Boats, NPR’s Ann Powers called Earl her “new favorite songwriter,” and she wasn’t alone. Accolades followed from Rolling Stone to the Wall Street Journal and a million music sites in between that positioned her somewhere to the left of Neko Case, a few blocks from Sharon Van Etten, catercorner to Angel Olsen. She toured everywhere, playing with the likes of Loudon Wainwright, Rhett Miller, and Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, who spoke for many people when he said Earl had “the most heartbreakingly beautiful voice in Seattle.”
Two years later, she followed up with the equally powerful Swift Arrows (produced by Damien Jurado), and returned to the touring trenches, startling audiences around the world with songs that laid bare an inner landscape full of darkness and loss, as well as the defiant resolution not to be consumed by them. Both records are gorgeous, painstakingly crafted, and, not to put too fine a point on anything, full of heavy emotional weather. (Not for nothing did Powers observe that Earl’s writes “for those of us who have been through a few things.”)
But take a minute to consider what it means to have been through a few things. It suggests reaching the other side. Eight years after burning her (figurative) boats to pursue life as a professional musician, quitting her job, and forging a career, Shelby Earl found that her inspiration was leading away from the darkness and anger she so fruitfully explored on those first two LPs and toward the light that would yield her third, and most accomplished record to date.
That light shines through every facet of the album, from the songwriting, whose thematic concerns turn away from savage self-exploration and toward coruscating character studies, ballads, and swooning pop gems. The new songs retain her gift for a dark lyrical turn, but locate the telltale images in the context of other people.
The album introduces a cast of memorable characters—a former lover named James, a future baby named Mercy, a very present-tense woman who cries an ocean of tears only to test her fortitude as a swimmer—and fleshes out their struggles, pain, joy, and redemption. Writing about this retinue wouldn’t have been possible without the heavy introspection in Earl’s past, but it’s also a sign of the kind of empathy that distinguishes any truly major work of art.
The liberation of the subject matter also propels Earl’s celebrated voice into more adventurous melodic terrain than ever before, a topography enhanced by the record’s stunning production. After two intense albums that foregrounded the sounds of a live rock band backing her powerhouse voice, Earl found herself eager to try something different.
In 2015, she collaborated with the Seattle production and arrangement team The Spectacles on the swooningly romantic “Stay With Me Tonight.” Originally intended as an experimental one-off, the song became the launchpad for a new approach to the studio and a new collaborative partnership. Appropriately for this batch of non-autobiographical (though no less personal) songs, the sound would incorporate a more rhythmically dynamic, instrumentally audacious, thrill-seeking way of fleshing out the textures suggested by her melodies. Once producer Martin Feveyear (Mark Lanegan, Brandi Carlisle, Eric Bachmann) came on board, and the whole team entered the studio, the process took flight.
It wasn’t a question of “going pop,” incorporating more danceable beats, or mobilizing the vogue for vintage keyboard soul—though both of those aesthetics lurk at the edge of the frame throughout. No, it was something much simpler: The Man Who Made Himself a Name is the sound of an artist who, having lived and chronicled some catastrophically hard times, found herself on the other side feeling happier, healthier, healed—and making music that sounded like it.
Not to sound Pollyannaish—though Earl may have moved through the heavy emotional weather that distinguished her early work, she clearly remembers what it felt like to be consumed by it. However, as “Like I Do,” the gorgeous duet with the wildly talented Josiah Johnson (currently on hiatus from his own band) makes clear, “everything is not, is not what it seems.” The process of reconciling painful memories with the realization that you don’t have to be in pain to write and sing great songs about it has produced her best, deepest, and most assured work to date.