Reviewed by: Asher Wolf
Sometimes you can tell a book by its cover. Empty Houses’ debut album, Daydream, sports an idyllic beach scene, hyper-saturated and tinted with a crinkled brown filter like a sleeve that’s been sitting in your record collection for the last 40 odd years. Likewise, beneath its rustic coloration, this feel-good music is still vibrant and relevant. The 10 rich and catchy tracks on Daydream reveal the enduring similarities between contemporary indie-pop and the ‘70s and ‘80s styles that gave rise to it.
Empty Houses is self-consciously retro (hence the cover art). This is a bold approach to take in a musical economy that simultaneously fetishizes and disdains the hipster-affiliated quality. Today’s listeners are prone to judge nostalgia as pretentious. For some, a nod to the past can imply that the present just isn’t good enough, and so people get defensive. But Empty Houses is not retro for the sake of being retro. The joyful enthusiasm that pervades Daydream makes it clear that the three musicians are simply playing what they love. And they happen to love R&B, Motown, ‘80s pop, and post-disco as much as the popular music of their own generation.
Hailing from Detroit, the musicians are Motown to the bone. Daydream is not the surface level imitation of a past aesthetic, but rather a genuine revival of the soulful, impassioned delivery that fuels the music. In other words, the songs are more than modern pop painted in sepia; they really do feel like the classic music from which they are inspired. The juicy closing track, “Thunderstorms”, bounces like a more tasteful Wham! hit. Daydream’s pre-released single “Falling Away” bubbles with a similar peppy melodicism, anchored by a delicious hook and a simple but compelling dance beat. Both songs beg for the gaudy colors and coordinated dance moves of an early MTV music video.
Though half their songs are almost overwhelmingly upbeat, Empty Houses also sports a grittier edge on tracks including “Rope”, “Hold Your Hand”, and “All I Had”. “Rope” starts with a jangly minor key strumming pattern before the rhythm section kicks in, adding smoothness and danceability to join the guitar’s sharp, echoey distortion. The hook is scorchingly badass, and the song is structured to milk the most out of each well-crafted moment.
The songwriting is top-notch almost across the board, but other songs are less effective in their structure and delivery. A few tracks are well-written enough to launch the listener into the emotional stratosphere but fall a bit short of their potential due to flat arrangements or clumsy transitions between sections. The anthemic chorus on “Hold Your Hand” needs to feel just a little more grand, and the somber “Mercy” would be even more gorgeous if it didn’t lose momentum with the start of a new segment.
Fortunately, for every complaint of this kind, there are a handful of moments that utterly hit the mark and make me grin. Empty Houses keeps their songs fun, accessible, and fresh by throwing unexpected twists or pulling off predictable maneuvers with enough soulful zeal to surprise me anyway. Fusing rock and Motown chord progressions with Katy Perry-esque pop hooks, “Better of Me” and “All I Had” are gems. Each song save the sappy tune “Every Word” (like an Adele ballad with a more dusty sounding piano) has at least one home-run moment that demands multiple listens.
Daydream is fast-paced, finely crafted, and a blast to listen to. What the band lacks in originality it makes up for in its contagious passion. Like a more R&B-heavy Lake Street Dive, Empty Houses should appeal to youngsters and their parents alike, unmistakably 21st century in its broad, holistic celebration of pop music’s past.