Despite his surf rock credentials, Bahamas (Afie Jurvanen) is Canadian born and bred. Now on his fourth studio album having won a slew of awards from Best Alternative Album to Best Songwriter, we take Earthtones into the demo room to see if they’re all warranted…
It’s rare that vocals take such a massive lead in the production of an album. However, in the case of Bahamas’ new album, Earthtones, his folksy and powerful voice takes the fore in a big way. Spread thickly over a minimalist blend of slide and plucked steel guitar comes “Alone”, the opening track of the album. As a powerful, near spoken word ballad, with most of its melody provided by acapella backing vocals, it’s an interesting opening track choice, but is it a sign of the album to come?
Perhaps by its name and more melodic nature, “Opening Act (The Shooby Dooby Song)” would’ve been the wiser choice. Having been the opening act for Jack Johnson (think back to the early noughties, you’ll remember him), Bahamas takes a song in the same beach-boy, acoustic guitar-on-the-sand-vein as Johnson himself. As chilled as the song is, the ‘shooby-dooby’ vocals from backing singer Felicity Williams detract from this relaxed vibe more than they contribute, coming across as a shrill intrusion rather than welcome addition.
Thankfully, this is only a minor stumbling block for her, as evidenced on the majority of the tracks, “No Wrong” being a fine example. In most cases, Felicity’s higher pitch balances out the somewhat flat notes that Jurvanen himself can’t quite reach. Although his efforts are valiant, his range limits him when he pushes his vocals chords that tone too far, and whilst enthusiastic, they’re a little discordant.
In a fascinating turn of vocal style, “Bad Boys Need Love Too” takes on a seriously R&B tone, with Jurvanen attempting to sound like OutKast’s Big Boi with a set of deep and sultry vocals. Unfortunately, he falls wildly flat of what seems to be an attempt at Southern drawl. Felicity Jones however, is on hand to show off a soulful set of pipes that accomplish the husky and breathy tones needed to just about hold the track together.
In “No Expectations” and “Show Me Naomi”, further lack of vocal prowess still hampers Bahamas efforts to produce some sweeter vocals, despite the poetic nature of his lyrics and undeniable prowess across the guitar spectrum. From pedal steel to Stratocaster to acoustic, Afie is an excellent instrumentalist and lyricist, there’s no doubt there. However, his somewhat strangled vocal range can spoil an otherwise very satisfying, interesting catalogue of tracks.
As the album progresses and leads us into some seriously long-feeling tracks in the forms of “Way With Words” and “Everything To Everyone”, the album starts to lose what little toehold it had. Whilst the complex and intricate guitar melodies keep your focus pinned a little and the production value is still truly excellent, it comes down to the same shortcoming time and time again.
As we go into “So Free”, which feels at least every second of its seven-minute and six second running time, this reviewer has a suggestion for the next album: give Felicity Jones the mic. Her vocals feel massively wasted being relegated to the back-up and loaded up with “ooh’s” and “aah’s”. With her at the fore, with Jurvanen’s guitar ability and lyrics (even his bassier vocals to give him his due), the album would have every opportunity to be a winner.
Unfortunately, this is not the case with Earthtones, which overall feels a little frustrating. With the potential to be truly gorgeous, the vocal focus is misplaced on Jurvanen and the production, although excellent, hasn’t struck the right chord by placing them so far forward in the recordings. Perhaps in the future, Bahamas will show a more varied album and will feel more like the band it deserves to be, as opposed to the moniker for Afie Jurvanen… but not this time.
Author: Steve, Southgate store