Really pleasant surprises are few and far between lately. Seems like between June and August I was hearing nothing but albums that I really liked. Then in September and October it flipped and I heard maybe one good record a week or less. So I started listening less, hoping that the good albums would catch up with me eventually. When The Local Strangers sent me a link to their record at the beginning of October, I intentionally put it off trying to fool myself into thinking it would be a better album if I let it breathe a bit. In hindsight this was a really stupid plan.
The two full-time members of The Local Strangers are Matt Hart and Aubrey Zoli, both former midwesterners now living in Seattle. Matt is a Chicago guy who used to be in the band Cobalt & The Hired Guns, and part of the Chicago Roots Collective. Having listened to Cobalt’s last record and hearing what Matt is doing with The Local Strangers, there was obviously a big separation in artistic vision. On Left For Better, the third release for the band, Matt and Aubrey focus mostly on harmony and matters of the heart.
They bill themselves as soul-americana and I gotta tell ya, I hear a lot more soul in these songs. In fact, I would almost consider this more of a folk-pop record than americana. I think this is mainly due to the vocals from Zoli, which are rich and powerful from the very beginning. “Mr. Blackberry” isn’t exactly a great indicator of the rest of Left For Better, but it is an amazing introduction to the talents of those involved.
There’s an interesting dynamic between Hart and Zoli that keeps the listener oh their toes. Whenever Hart is taking the lead, the songs seem to lean to a more folky singer/songwriter tone. “Uptown” is a drastic change of pace. It’s equally as good, but quite different. The same change occurs on the next song, “Chase The Battle,” which might be my favorite song in this collection. Zoli’s voice sounds very similar to La Roux’s Elly Jackson here, and it fits the music perfectly.
There’s some really nice production touches throughout the record, like on “Daniel.” They worked with Kevin Matley (The Head And The Heart) and I definitely think his touch pays off on some of these tracks. The way the vocals are layered gives “Daniel” a great texture. Even though there are many other things going on, it never gets overcrowded and you can hear all the pieces coming together.
The lyrics for most of the album are good-not mind blowing, but they serve their purpose (I would argue that this record is more about the overall sound than the individual words). There is one song that I particularly enjoy for it’s romantic sentiments, though. “House On A Hill” is the best of the Hart-led songs, and it holds up despite being very quiet and sweet. Somehow the way Hart and Zoli’s voices intertwine reminds me of a show tune being sung by the two leads.
Please just tell me straight
No need to complicate
After all, this ain’t no ring on a finger
But the view from my bed
I see the sun rise, not set
So for now, in the East, we can linger
Despite the inconsistencies, I think Left For Better is a record worthy of your time. It’s a great listen for these fall and winter months, as it just oozes a warmth that is the musical version of sitting by a fire with some hot cocoa. The Local Strangers are currently on a short east coast tour that includes a FREE show at Pete’s Candy Store in Brooklyn on November 20th. You can stream this record, as well as their first EP and a single on their Bandcamp page, and purchase Left For Better for $10.