One of the unique aspects of human living is our propensity to dream, aspire, and ultimately pursue, many different goals and objectives in a lifetime. People see or hear about something that seems worth exploring and suddenly a new path appears before them. Sometimes however, in the midst of these very straightforward agendas individuals set for themselves, unexpected curveballs can come flying into view and disrupt an otherwise very set plan of progress. Such a curveball is what one could say flew onto the radar of singer-songwriter Miles Nielsen, when Kelly Steward appeared in his life. One unexpected result of this pair's new connection, was their forming of a duo dubbed Weep & Willow, whose eponymous debut EP releases on December 16 (independent, 2016).
While no stranger to the music industry – Nielsen is the band leader of Miles Nielsen and the Rusted Hearts and his father is none other than Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick – the music created by the Rockford, IL songwriter alongside Steward does not look in any manner, passive or active, to emulate or latch onto existing work. Though there is an underlying base of roots music admiration and folk rock sonic character similar in description to the Rusted Hearts, neither Nielsen nor Steward is clamoring for, or excessively attached to, a definitive genre label to slap on Weep & Willow's record.
Nielsen's upbringing, as someone surrounded by all manner of folk, rock, blues, pop, and more, certainly comes through in Weep & Willow's style. Yet, more than any particular instruments or influences, the central driver of this project is the intangible bond between Nielsen and Steward themselves. Everything, from song titles (“Over the Moon”), to choices in metaphors (So it goes / we mend and sew / until the needles broke), execution of harmonies, and even the cover art, exudes a focus on the true love and the genuine chemistry Nielsen and Steward discovered as a new couple and then as a musical partnership.
The duality of Nielsen and Steward's connectivity as people and musicians, is draped over every minute of this self-titled release, as Nielsen provides his multi-instrumentalist chops (vocals, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, baritone guitar, lap steel) and Steward (vocals, arrangements) brings every song to a compositionally textured and emotive level unattainable by Nielsen alone. The music of the EP is bolstered with support from Miles's brother, Daxx Nielsen (drums) and fellow Rusted Hearts bandmates Adam Plamann (clarinet, keyboards), Dave McClellan (bass, vocal harmonies). Duane Lundy (Vandaveer, These United States) sat behind the mixing board.
A first listen through leaves the songs feeling a bit disconnected from one another, as the underlying folk rock core is there but, the tones, tempos, keys, and even performance style of each can come across like notable departures from each track that precedes. “Gold,” introduces the EP with a steady, mid-tempo, folk rock flavor, that quickly shows off Weep & Willow's synchronicity with choruses of vocally warm and snugly fit harmonies. Then, just when listeners may feel they know what will be in store for the rest of the record, “Over the Moon” takes a noticeable turn towards a more soulful and bluesy style, highlighting a laid back bass line while also placing a syncopated, yet easy going, slowly trotted rhythm between the kick and snare drums. The flip side to this mild swerve in compositional style is Steward's purely impassioned singing. Long held and slowly transitioned notes in the melody, bring to mind thoughts of longing and pining – like Steward is filled to the brim with emotion that's running over – which fits the simultaneously eager, nervous, but willingly loving lyrics too perfectly (If you show me you're mine / I'd fall in too / Draw me the line / I'd walk straight through / So give me tonight / I'm over the moon).
The halfway point of “Leviathan” turns the stylistic dial a few clicks more away from straightforward folk but also away from the blues, as the first bars slant toward a minor key, a descending melodic hook and a quickly dropped in backing drum beat that when put together with Weep & Willow's vocals, feel distinctly like something out of the high times of Fleetwood Mac and Stevie Nicks' solo work (See also: “You Can't Fix It” from the “Sound City” soundtrack). This isn't entirely surprising, since one of Nielsen's openly admitted influences is Tom Petty-era classic rock, and Petty and Stevie Nicks have definitely impacted each other's music over the years.
After what could be considered the intensity apex of the EP, “In Too Deep” reigns things back in to an almost bookend-matching level like “Gold” but still manages to be entirely different in its own way. Winding down at the end of the record makes sense but that doesn't mean Weep & Willow are leaving the music on its most minimal or lightly treading note. Again, the duo's fit-like-a-glove harmonies are showcased right at the start and lyrically, things don't stray too far from what's presented in the first verse (Don't you know that I'll be home / Don't you know by now?). However, the way every backing instrument is given a clean, clear, and bright touch – from the marching band-style snap of the snare drum, to the head-turning appearance of a warm-toned clarinet solo in the bridge, and the smooth stream of a lap steel sailing underneath it all – along with how the arrangement leaves space so these instruments and their individual qualities can be fully heard and appreciated, is what makes this subdued track actually a powerful finale. Add in a layer of lyrics that can be both downright intimate and sensuous (Breathe on my neck / like it's the last breath that we'll share in this bed) and by the end of the EP, it's impossible not see why Nielsen and Steward couldn't resist making music together.
What exactly comes next for the musical future of Weep & Willow isn't certain. If nothing else however, this self-titled record is a sweet, sincere display of deep affection. If its singularity initially feels tricky to approach, just as Nielsen and Steward feel no need to over scrutinize what they've made, one can bask in the intangible but emotionally dense sentiments of this album just for what it is in the here and now; no need to be concerned about the past or the future.
“The songs and sounds of Weep & Willow are two hearts connected with one thing in common, the love of an honest song."