Coming out of Brooklyn, New York, North Highlands is a young band with a confident debut LP entitled Wild One, which they self-released on Bandcamp.com. They are led by singer Brenda Malvini, and it is her hometown of North Highlands, California that gives the band its name. The nostalgia for that kind of a quaint west-coast suburb is certainly something that informs the sound of Wild One, not to mention its cover art, which features an aged black-and-white picture of a ladies' bowling team from the good old days. Just as groups like Vampire Weekend lent a soundtrack to the preppy, upper-class segment of east-coast society, North Highlands' songs often evoke the tree-lined roads of sprawling western suburbia. This is due in large part to Malvini's gripping vocals, wavering between delicate and bluesy with considerable talent and charisma. Meanwhile, the band behind her is solid and quite effective - perhaps not exactly unique, but they play skillfully and beautifully. Standing out in particular is the guitar work by Mike Barron and Daniel Stewart, who bring a lot of life to the songs with strings that jangle, glitter and sputter, rising to the top of the mix on almost every track.
Wild One starts off with a lot of swagger on "Bruce," one of the strongest songs on the album. "Looks like a falling star, feels right to be falling apart," Malvini sings in the verse, expressing feelings of change and growth on a cold night as summer approaches. She has a knack for bringing to mind both the emotional and physical places associated with youthful longing and uncertainty. Melody is one of the strong points on Wild One, and the trait that in particular sets it apart from North Highlands' peers of rollicking indie-pop. "Bruce" does not disappoint in this regard, delivering vocals as well as guitar lines that are instantly memorable.
"Steady Steady" is another highlight, and definitely the most obvious candidate for a single from the album. Once again, the guitars lead the way, pounding out a bright, skeletal rhythm in the vein of early '80s college rock bands like Pylon. Malvini's vocals come to the fore on "Benefits," repeating a rolling refrain of "I want more than I need, more than I want it all" over a rock-solid bass line and guitars that whip and glide magnificently underneath. The music is reflective, with the melody taking surprising turns that satisfy and stick in the mind. "Best Part" is similar in its emotional resonance, building from more earworm vocals supported by some tasteful keys and bass. A clapping rhythm slowly draws the listener deeper and deeper into the airy, atmospheric tune. Although the lyrics are simple and repetitive, they are also effective, conveying a world of feeling in their melody and delivery.
Close analysis reveals a fair share of musical variety throughout Wild One. "Fre$ca" is discordant and echo-laden, evoking a dreamy music box, while "Chicago" is backed by jazzy keyboard work and electronic percussion. Unfortunately, these musical flourishes are rather subdued, never calling attention to themselves, thereby failing to make much of an impression. It's something that severely weakens the album, as the songs start to run together, becoming at times indistinguishable. Wild One is further marred by the presence of some filler, whether it be the drudging, string-laden "Lion Heart," or the pleasant but forgettable "Hiking." These musicians are certainly technically gifted, but they do not manage to craft an especially unique or striking sound.
Nevertheless, the melodies are often terrific and the vocals are extremely appealing, grabbing at the ears even as the individual songs occasionally fail to establish an identity. The repetitive, sing-song refrains can get stuck in one's head before a track is even finished. Fortunately, these positives bring the listener back for more, revealing the intricacies of the fantastic guitar work with repeated plays. Overall, Wild One, while not exceptional, is a solid debut for North Highlands with a number of real highlights. More significantly, it is also a work that shows a lot of potential and boasts a few distinctive elements. If the group can hone their emotive, technically-sound indie style and introduce a greater sense of ambition to their future works, Malvini and company have a chance at making some really great music for years to come.
Tomi Mendel is an obsessive lover of music and movies and a co-founder of Orchestral Colour Records. Currently living in Los Angeles, he enjoys spending his free time reading, writing, learning, watching movies and memorizing useless facts about music history.