Sometimes all it takes to avoid the sophomore slump is having the courage to mix things up a little and that’s exactly what The Young Evils did with its EP Foreign Spells.
Released earlier this week, Foreign Spells sees the band plugging in, changing its approach to vocals and presenting a more rock ‘n’ roll sound as opposed to the folkier leanings of its debut album Enchanted Chapel. The end result is “less young and more evil” as Troy Nelson, the group’s principal songwriter, puts it.
Turns out his catchy descriptor is fairly accurate.
When listening to Foreign Spells it’s hard to believe it’s coming from the same band that recorded Enchanted Chapel and it’s quite clear that The Young Evils matured musically during their gap in recordings (Enchanted Chapel was released in 2010). They’ve transitioned from the simple instrumentation of mostly acoustic guitars, kick drum and tambourines to becoming a full-on band with electric guitar, bass and keyboard which has helped flesh out a bit of a new musical direction for the band.
That shift combined with an increased emphasis on songwriting is what makes Foreign Spells a perfect EP. Clocking in at under 14 minutes, it offers catchy pop-rock songs with great melodies (“Dead Animals” and “Touch Tone Lovers” are highlights and bound to become staples of the band’s live shows) and perfectly sets the table for this new chapter in the band’s career. But it wasn’t just plugging in and crafting better songs that marked a change for the band. The Young Evils also mixed things up vocally in an attempt to change how they have been perceived in the past.
“On our last record a lot of the reviews and feedback we got involved people calling us cute. We wanted to get away from that,” said Nelson.
The cute tag came from the dual vocals of Nelson and Mackenzie Mercer. The pair started dating after the formation of the band and they sing every song in unison on the group’s debut record. In the local press The Young Evils became known as much for being a band with dating dual vocalists as they did their catchy, harmony-based songs.
On Foreign Spells Mercer and Nelson separate vocally and on several tracks Mercer sings verses solo as opposed to the team vocals her and Nelson have become known for.
“It’s something you’re going to be seeing more of. It’s planned that way,” Nelson said of Mercer’s vocals. “I’ll be fading into the background and Mackenzie will be more of the focus vocally.”
Another way the band worked to shake that perception of cuteness is by working with producer Shane Stoneback who has produced albums by Sleigh Bells, Cults and Vampire Weekend. Stoneback is a childhood friend of Nelson’s — they grew up together in the small town of Mitchell, SD, which is also where Nelson met Young Evils guitarist Cody Hurd — and his background with the aforementioned Pitchfork favorites, as well as artists as diverse as Britney Spears and Fucked Up, made him the right fit for Foreign Spells, according to the band.
Mercer said Stoneback’s guidance was an invaluable tool during recording.
“He helped with the vocals for sure, but it was really his production experience as a whole that made him who we wanted to work with,” she said. “We knew what we wanted the songs to sound like and he really helped us get there.”
Nelson handles the heavy lifting lyrically and he said he tries not to get too cute with his songwriting.
“I love wordplay but I don’t like to just throw words together just because they rhyme,” he said “So if you can somehow find a sweet spot between wordplay and having something that makes sense; that’s the world I like to live in.”
I chatted with Mercer and Nelson about the intent behind the songs on Foreign Spells and they offered up a track-by-track take on the narratives of the EP’s four songs.
“Darker Blue Bayou”
TN: “It’s a song that takes place when it’s about to be the apocalypse and some people know it’s going to be the end of the world and instead of freaking out they decide to …”
MM: “They decide to start a riot. They just say fuck it and take over and instead of being sad that everything is over, they start a party”
TN: “They wreak havoc on the town. It’s sort of like they beat the apocalypse to the punch by totally trashing the town, breaking windows and getting a group of people to just completely trash everything. Then they build cars out of the wreckage and they drive around and make it their own little paradise until, they, well as the lyrics go, until the sun burns everything up.”
MM: “It’s stealing the apocalypse’s thunder … a pre-apocalyptic anthem.”
TN: “It’s about a really toxic relationship. The female character in the song has kept quiet and gone through the motions until she finally has the balls to say ‘we’re fucked if we keep going on like this.’ It’s like we’re dead animals if things keep going the same way they have been going. It’s a simple little breakup song except it’s got a little bit of a female empowerment twist. That comes in the lyric ‘I used to hold it in, but now I’ll shout, dead animals is what we will become.'”
“The Devil’s Barricade”
TN: “Devil’s Barricade is a bit of a period piece (laughs). I did sort of write it envisioning back in the times when they had to hold torches to get through a caves. It’s like, there’s a devil’s barricade and someone has to break through it. I have almost sort of taken that song literally in my head.”
MM: “I think it’s the least straight-forward song on the album. I don’t think any of the songs are that straight-forward but this one is definitely the least of the four.”
TN: “That one has a kind of male-female narrative going on. The guy is trying to save you (points to Mercer). The guy wants to be with her. She’s in the devil’s barricade, which I guess could be a shitty relationship, and he wants to pull her out. In the end he says, you know, ‘I found out through running waters … If you die before I reach you, I’ll die too I must confess.’ So it’s really just another love song.”
TN: “Touch Tone Lovers is, I guess, a modern phone sex song. It’s like phone sex with someone you’re never going to meet, which is like most phone sex I suppose. So people fall in love with the operator and think she likes them too. Like, she has a very sexy voice, I think she really likes me, and of course she is someone they’re never going to get.”
The Young Evils celebrate the release of Foreign Spells with an EP release show hosted by Marco Collins tonight at The Barboza (7 p.m., $8). You can purchase the Foreign Spells EP here.