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Lake Isle Release “Wake Up” EP

October 25, 2010

This past weekend my band had the privilege of sharing the bill yet again with Greensboro-based alternative rock group Lake Isle at the Green Bean in GSO. Back in August, I mentioned that Lake Isle were prepping a new EP to be released later this year, and gave a link to “Steel Rails,” a song they were previewing at the time. Well, “Steel Rails” now has a home on the band’s new Wake Up EP, just released this month.

Recorded by Ashley Powell in Greensboro and mastered by the revered Kitchen Mastering studio in Chapel Hill, Wake Up EP is the well-done recording Lake Isle deserve (and need) to showcase the clarity and complexity with which they approach their delicately-crafted songs. With 5 songs coming in at just over 20 minutes, Wake Up is a satisfying EP that successfully establishes on record the same attributes that Lake Isle convey in the live setting; Lake Isle write pop songs shrouded in melancholy, outfitted by detailed textures and led by Mark Doughtery’s smooth, unforced vocal that all sum up to a pleasantly ethereal listening experience.

“Steel Rails” is the rightful opener for the EP and sets the tone for the rest of the record. The other songs serve to explore different facets of the same central idea, and the sonic and tonal cohesion of Wake Up is much appreciated– each track feels like it’s right where it belongs.

The second track, “Anodyne,” is a patient slow-burner that benefits from it’s arrangement. The last 1:40 of the song are completely instrumental, which actually acts in the song’s favor. It’s not going to blow listeners away, but the song’s outro is likely to sneakily lull some into a kind of half-lit dreamscape.

One of the band’s strongest suits is their obvious experience in songcrafting. Though I didn’t check up on this, I’d be willing to wager that most of the band members have been in a number (if not a lot) of bands before forming Lake Isle, and the veteran experience is apparent. Each piece fits into the puzzle so nicely. The thing about Lake Isle is that they may have songs that are based on only 3 or 4 chords, but by the time guitarist Shawn Smith and bassist Chris Micca are done adding their layers of shimmering soundscapes and pulsating “musical heartbeats,” those 3 or 4 chords sound more robust than you’d realize.

As a guitarist my ear is constantly drawn to Shawn Smith’s talent for constructing sounds. There are moments in the title-track “Wake Up” that sound like The Edge on Joshua Tree, and then there are moments of fuzzed-out dissonance that could be a trick out of Jonny Greenwood’s book. But don’t mistake Shawn for a simple lifter of other people’s sounds. While the use of effects is a crutch for some, Smith commands them as tools at his disposal to achieve an overarching ideal.

The first time I heard Lake Isle they reminded me of The National. Now admittedly, I was listening to High Violet pretty intensely at the time, but I think it’s a valid reference point, and I think a large portion of that can be accredited to the controlled dynamics and technical steadiness of the band’s rhythm section. Both in a live setting and on record, bassist Chris Micca and drummer Andy Foster are the definition of calculated restraint; it’s obvious that the two of them could break their self-imposed mold at any moment, but instead their choice to provide stability as the group’s backbone proves to be a discipline that grounds the band. That doesn’t mean that the rhythm section lacks soul, however. While Lake Isle may not be the project to showcase Micca and Foster’s technical prowess, the confidence and precision with which they fit their bass and drum parts together speaks volumes beyond the explicit notes they play.

On top of all of the nuanced complexity that’s to be found on the EP, it’s a relief that vocalist Mark Doughtery sounds so comfortable on these songs. Throughout the record he spends most of his lines in his lower register, and that’s okay, because this band isn’t about emotional firepower; I would say it’s more about emotional subtlety. Doughtery’s voice embodies the mood of their songs by remaining a calm presence through the ebb and flow of their songs’ dynamics. Lake Isle’s website references Morrissey as a vocal influence on Doughtery, and I don’t think the final result is too far off.

At the end of the day, Wake Up is a grower (as most of my favorite albums are). Not because of a lack of tangible hooks or interesting musical parts, but because it takes time to really get what the band are doing. Lake Isle choose to develop their songs on their on terms, and it’s a rewarding experience for those who give them the listens they deserve. Go see them live, and pick up a copy of Wake Up while you’re at it. It will only get better from there.

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