Hailing from the famous sound center of Austin, Texas – home of the ever popular South by Southwest Festival – Those Poor Serfs fall somewhere in a charming middle ground that stands apart from the condensed modern vibes of SXSW's famed microcosm but also manages to keep close to the familiar ribbons of soul-stained southern rock without getting their band's music trapped in an overly traditional time warp. This invisible but no less noticeable line is one that can be most challenging to balance; with too much movement to either side possibly leaving artists severely branded inauthentic or sonically un-relatable.
Those Poor Serfs demonstrate this penchant for navigating the modern with the traditional on City View (independent, 2016), the sophomore EP out today, that follows their debut EP, Live in Austin (independent, 2014). Active since 2012, the band has grown from a two person project to a full blown quintet, chock full of comfortably folk rock fare. Derek Kinsaul (vocals, guitar), Coby Michalek (vocals, guitar), Ben Stark (bassist), Temp Keller (drums), and BJ Lazarus (mandolin), offer up four tracks that traverse the pathways of connection and the way people convey the emotions that line those inner roads.
A project on the shorter side of extended plays, what City View lacks in literal storytelling space, it makes up for in diversity for the settings of its sentiments. There is a well established chain of consistency thanks to Kinsaul's vocals and a running stream of reverberation that fills out every crevice of whichever instruments are at play through the record. The most direct display of Those Poor Serfs' ability to effortlessly balance is in these two character elements. Kinsaul projects a voice that is at once refined and eloquent but exuding just a modicum of jagged edge – reflecting aptly noted admiration of Ray LaMontagne – letting listeners know he's pushed himself both physically and emotionally at the mic before and doesn't want to hide that behind the mixing board.
Sonically, there's plenty of enjoyment to be had in each chapter. Major seventh chords with long, ringing, slurred guitar tones create a kind of lazy happiness in the melody; tapping into the to the kind of slow, early, Sunday mornings one might share with a familiar love on the reversely titled, “All Night.” Its sensual lyrics shout out a young John Mayer more than anything (I pick you up, lay you down / put your back to the wall / make you say my name / til you can't take it anymore now). The thought to apply an especially jangly tone to the mandolin and guitar parts on the desperately longing “Steel Bell” is a treat, tossing an extra nod to the idea of metal and toughness, with Kinsaul hoping for his relationship to remain intact while the bell tolls on its chances with each passing verse – audible in the ever-so-slight shakiness of the vocals as the song peaks. (And I can hear the sound, the sound of your name / running off my lips, it tastes like pain / like an old steel bell ringing through the night / I'm an old lighthouse guiding you right.) It's noteworthy that as the EP turns to its latter half, the mood takes a sharper dive as well (In the winter I tire of being alone.) but does so using more major seventh chords (combined with an overall minor hook) – the same musical framing that made the opening track so pleasant – showcasing Those Poor Serfs' flexibility in songwriting.
When the instrumentally diverse, more upbeat closer of “Wakes You” finally comes around, the track serves as a nice emotional uptick from its predecessor. However one does wonder somewhat about the choices surrounding this song, both as lead single and as City View's conclusion. The latter decision makes sense as a melodic feelings booster but, on the part of narrative, the placement presents a boldly open ended scenario as opposed to going for pleasant closure that would have resulted if the EP's bookends were simply flipped. Then again, perhaps this was an objective of the band all along, as the open ending seemingly allows for the four track story to play into itself like an ever evolving cycle, which would hone right into Kinsaul's personal sentiments about drafting his life in songs. “I write about whichever issue or circumstance is most prevalent in my life[.] I hope people take whatever makes the most sense for them. For me, it always seems to evolve over time. “
City View's length doesn't allow for as much creativity by way of delicate build up but, Those Poor Serfs make do very well with the material present, as every track illuminates its individuality like single scenes within an overarching play. Each is capable of being enjoyed on its own or with the additional aspect of consecutive performance. Digested in macro, the EP's chapters seem to follow a route of rising and then falling, before leaving listeners at a place of neutral decision over the City View they've just experienced: depart and revisit or put on repeat.