Review: Via Audio – S/T

Originally published in Delusions of Adequacy Sept. 7, 2004

Even without paying much mind to the self-titled nature of the release, it’s pretty obvious that Via Audio’s recent six-song offering on kill.normal is the debut of a band with radio rotation in its sights.

The recording is insanely clean, focused, and deliberate, with even the in-between moments bearing the mark of studio sheen, engineering polish, exquisitely placed mics, and the like. The same could be said of the Boston quartet, whose members all make sure to hit their marks and nail all the right notes.

The songs themselves don’t seem to suffer much from the approach. If anything, Via Audio’s brand of clean but textured pop-rock is well-served by the attention to radio-friendliness. But the disc still teeters near the domain of the inconsistent, another common hint a band is taking its first step out of the gate.

The songs on Via Audio are good enough – some are very good, to be fair – but they feel like six slightly different performances by six slightly different bands. The only sentiment that ties them all together is their obvious desire to prove that they’re ready for the big time.

The EP opens with “Developing Active People,” which could be an enveloping little intro – the perky bass walk and poppy duet delivery is excessively cute, but well done – if not for the persistent Moog moans and the occasional chirp of some 70s/80s throwback keyboard measure. It’s here, though, that we’re introduced to singer/guitarist Jessica Martins, who may be Via Audio’s brightest asset.

Martins has a voice that screams “pop singer/songwriter,” but it also has colors and inflections in it that separate it from some of the more sophomoric or predictable sets of vocal chords out there. On tracks like the layered sugar of “Mouth Shut,” Martins, more than anyone, saves the songs from becoming exercises in processed sentimentality, her voice offering a more human element in the band’s carefully prepared wall of Pop (with the capital P) sound.

It’s not that the rest of Via Audio is without ability, technical prowess, or a sense of invention. Far from it. Martins just feels more like the guiding light of the act.

The inviting and unexpected “If They Find Me” strays further from some of the conventions and boundaries set by the quartet elsewhere in the recording. It’s more apt to avoid clichés, let instrumental bridges meander into more interesting turf and toy with some of the band’s budding chemistry. The song’s verses revolve around tight, palm-muted guitar measures and a constant stream of stops and starts, of bridges leading to interjections leading to interludes.

“If They Find Me” also has the contention of being the EP’s least-charted track and, on it, Via Audio plays it loose and fast a bit, favoring more thrusting refrains, darker passages, and choppy guitars over a terrain of vocal harmonies and precise hooks. In short, disregarding one brief passage where the band builds to a climax and then stumbles a bit before the penultimate crescendo, it’s one of the best tracks on a short disc.

The second half of the disc has some great moments but also is somewhat hit or miss. The dance-floor shuffling of “Our Lies + Your Smile” is incredibly catchy, but its sense of wonder and buoyancy, while possibly heartfelt, feels more like the get-in-the-emotion-before-the-commercial-break soundtrack to a melodramatic made-for-TV movie: well done but slightly overcooked.

“Setup” is less focused on the atmosphere of a dance club than on the comforting smokiness of a dark coffeehouse. It’s a genuinely beautiful and engaging pop song a la Aimee Mann (circa Magnolia?) that displays a surprising grasp of subtle colors and understated accompaniment, something the band had not explored on earlier tracks.

The album-closing “The Perfect Fix” starts (and lingers) on an awkward drum sample, only getting to the heart of the matter after a few too many measures of distorted vocals and random electronic flourishes. And then it gets there only gradually.

The jazzy horns and electric guitar shreds in “The Perfect Fix” lend a more rough-around-the-edges sensuality to the clearly composed pop noise track, but it�s not quite enough to save it from feeling anti-climactic, and that’s too bad.

So, what’s the verdict? Six songs and six interesting, if sometimes-inconsistent, little musical offerings. Via Audio, even for a young band, clearly has some of the talent to make highly accessible pop-rock (and the production to make it shine), but the quartet’s first EP for kill.normal doesn’t seem to live up to the promise of its talents.

It has its moments, some which are more than worth the price of the disc for those taken with this brand of guitar- and vocal-centered pop-rock, but it’s more of a rehearsal than a manifesto or formal introduction.

If they focus their approach, though, AOR radio may soon have a new Boston act to push right into heavy rotation and the limelight.

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