Graded on a Curve:
Friendship,
Shock Out of Season

Friendship hail from Philadelphia, and on their second full-length they’ve made considerable strides, in part by enhancing their alt-country bedrock with electronic instrumentation. If that tactic reads as suspect, the results are strikingly effective, but just as important is the heightened sharpness of Dan Wriggins’ vocals and lyrics. On their prior output his stuff was solid; these eight new songs strongly suggest he has greatness in him. Shock Out of Season is out now on vinyl, compact disc, and digital through Orindal Records.

Conversational as a descriptor for recorded vocals can encompass numerous bushel-baskets full of talkers talking, but the term is especially appropriate to Friendship’s Dan Wriggins. It’s all right there on Shock Out of Season’s opener “If You See My Beloved”; not only does he favor a speaking, or better said, relaxed oratorical style, over a conventional singing approach, but he enunciates with such natural clarity that it was essentially impossible for this listener to not absorb every line.

In addition to Wriggins’ voice and guitar, Friendship includes Peter Gill on pedal steel, Mike Cormier on drums and drum machine, Evangeline Krajewski on synthesizer and flute, and Jon Samuels on percussion and drum machine. This unique blend of instrumentation makes the foregrounding of Wriggins’ manner of address doubly impressive.

The blending of trad instruments and electronics is nothing new, and when it’s done well it can bring a caboodle of good strokes, but too often, once the novelty wears off, the combination is beset by shallowness. By avoiding overplayed tropes, wielding a collective light touch and radiating the impression of being more interested in pleasing themselves than straining to impress others, Friendship succeeds.

Perhaps I’m just slow on the uptake, but over half of Shock Out of Season had elapsed before its contents began overtly reminding me of Lambchop. Had I heard Friendship’s 2015 debut You’re Going to Have to Trust Me first, it’s safe to say the connection would have been made a lot sooner, as that album is much more of trad alt-country affair, and in the mode of the enduring Nashville collective.

On the “F/V Hope” EP, which came out this past May, Friendship foreshadowed their electronic strides with the entrance of Krajewski on synth. Sporting a nifty cover of Kath Bloom’s “Bicycle,” the five-song set goes down well, though like You’re Going to Have to Trust Me, the likeness to Kurt Wagner and company is occasionally a little too precise, and nowhere more so than in the sometimes-strained nature of Wriggins’ voice.

Similarity to Lambchop isn’t exactly rampant, so this registers more as a limitation than a fault. But as said, Shock Out of Season diminishes the resemblance for over half the record. This only makes “Workhorse,” which unfurls like an uncovered gem from the ‘chop’s killer ’90s run, all the sweeter. The difference between it and “If You See My Beloved” is substantial, with the stutter and thump of the drum machines in the opener complementing the reflective vocals to fine effect.

Not just reflective, but a touch resigned, and shrewdly so; Wriggins manages to utter the line “If you see my beloved, say what’s up for me” without coming off like a hangdog dick. And if nothing here bests the first track, the rest is still quite appealing; “Sal” extends the downtrodden sensibility and envelops it with glistening, crisp pop and swells of pedal steel.

Yes, after repeated listens to “Sal” and “A Few Weeks,” the Lambchop-like tendencies do rise to the surface somewhat, but it’s no longer a circumstance I’d call derivative, in part through the consistent, literary-quality worthiness of the lyrics and the band’s success at carving out a fresh niche. See the cyclical electronics in “Fuzzy,” additives that’d be so easy to fumble into cheesiness, plus the subtle chiming of what sounds like a vibraphone.

After “Workhorse,” the record doesn’t falter. “Sure, But” approaches an emotionally rawer zone, though the song ends with the namechecking of cinematic whale Free Willy. Not exactly Moby Dick, but if leaning literary, Wriggins isn’t self-consciously so; in “If You See My Beloved” he repeats the by now banal phrase “living the dream” and makes it work.

“Sure, But” returns to the vocal strain heard on the debut and EP, with the facet carried over to late highlight “Skip to the Good Part.” Finale “Moment of Discovery” scales back to voice, pedal steel and guitar for their most forthrightly alt-country gesture, but enhanced with incessant electronic ambience and amp buzz, so it’s not exactly genre typical. Overall, Shock Out of Season displays tangible growth; Friendship’s sonic bud isn’t yet at full bloom, but hearing it blossom on these eight songs has been a pleasure.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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