THE NOVEL IDEAS – The Novel Ideas (own label)

Novel IdeasTake a quartet of friends from Massachusetts, a clutch of guitars and a pedal steel, set them to work on their four-part harmonies, simmer gently for around 5 years and, voilà, it’s The Novel Ideas. Although this new, self-titled album is not their first, it does seem to represent a significant point in the development of their sound.

The band has spent a couple of years honing and perfecting the songs on this album, including reworking a couple of tracks from earlier releases. With the addition of guest musicians, producer Rick Parker and Grammy-winner Ryan Freeland mixing, it’s clear that The Novel Ideas are now very confidently planting their musical feet.

Self-described as earnest, emotional and harmony-driven, with a side order of sadness, they make songs that are small, personal and often focused on the interior world. Three of the band, Daniel Radin, Sarah Grella and Danny Hoshino are songwriters, each taking turns leading on vocals, with James Parkington on bass and vocals making up the foursome. A potential disadvantage of having three songwriters so heavily reliant on the first person singular pronoun, is that so much “I” can get rather tiring.

‘Farm’ is the one track that takes a more traditional third person storytelling approach. A bleak tale of a failed farm is offset against a cheery uptempo country melody. But the payoff is in the farmer’s departing wife telling him “you’ll be fine”, her blunt optimism tying up music and lyrics.

‘The Blue Between Us’ is an unusual, touching lament of separation and homesickness. Even where love has been found in a new place, “Sometimes it takes where you are not, Just to remember where you’re from”.

Relationship torments feature large in many of the songs. ‘Dena’ is a conversation with the male vocal guiltily subdued and answered strongly and clearly by Grella who asserts “it was never your fault and I don’t blame you”. Through repetition, this can start to sound like protesting too much, but she’s adamant she wants to talk, so there’s a glimmer of hope here, too.

Though the lead on each track is not explicitly flagged up, it seems that it’s Radin taking the lead on ‘I’ll Try’, where he’s struggling to pick himself up without tumbling into self-pity, “Oh, damn, I’m feeling lonesome again”. Grella, on ‘I’m Not Waiting’ is more impatient, brusque almost, fearlessly considering moving on. Hoshino’s slightly more raspy vocal on ‘Broken Glass’ is another dissection of a relationship “When all our hopes and all our dreams crack like broken glass, So will we see it through when the fractured truth says it was not meant to last?”. It can start to feel as though some of these narratives might all be one story, only viewed from different angles

In an interview, the band members agreed that final song ‘I Was Not Around’ best represented them as a unit. It was the first song of hers that Grella shared with the band and sang lead on and although it’s been through many iterations and refinements, this song of guilt and remorse – “You asked me to save you from yourself, but I was not around” – retains a pathos and melancholy all of its own.

Together, this foursome deliver a pleasing combination of voices and instrumentation: a deceptively gentle Americana touched by the plaintive sting of pedal steel.

Su O’Brien

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