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War Presidents take risks, successfully avoid the 'sophomore slump' with new EP

Posted by Alex Pearlman  November 9, 2011 06:19 PM

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warpresidentsminnesodabostonallston.jpgBy Mike Flanagan

In any local music scene, especially in a city as rich with unsigned college bands as Boston, bands are encouraged -- expected, even -- to take risks. But for a band that built its small but dedicated fanbase around knowing exactly what kind of band it is, taking risks is actually, well...risky.

The War Presidents’ second EP, Minnesoda, sounds years and phases ahead of the debut they released just a few months ago. They’ve achieved a level of poise and cogent self-identity that few bands are capable of reaching without many records worth of aimless, cacophonous soul searching.

The distance between “Branches” and “Douglas” is astounding: The former is the dance pop tune with unmistakable intentions that spurred the band’s inception; the latter, the experimental pet project that just couldn’t help but morph into a cohesive, albeit disorienting, centerpiece for Minnesoda. “Douglas” is War Presidents’ “Art of Almost,” in that it symbolizes a significant transition in the band’s artistic mindset without defining its direction. It’s more of a benchmark -- a creative umbrella under which the band explores but never exceeds its self-imposed aesthetic boundaries.

In fact, “Douglas” is the only song on Minnesoda that would seem conspicuous on the War Presidents’ first EP due to its emphasis on rhythm over melody. Opener “Anna” pits two octaves of frontman Jesse George’s beguiling vocal melody against a percussive topcoat of sodden guitars. Drummer Stevie George tastefully teases the ride cymbal to create a Helm-esque texture that transforms the song into one of the best in the band’s expanding catalogue.

“Strawberry Milk” has been a live staple and crowd-pleaser since the band’s first shows, but it underwent a bit of elective melodic surgery before finally being recorded for Minnesoda. Version 2.0 benefits colossally from the subtly tweaked vocal melody that far more deftly complements the mesmerizing guitar lines and toy piano excerpts that color the song. By moving the opening line to the end of the song, George wrings it for all its affective potential. As he sings “All my friends are still degenerates / They can’t keep me from thinking what we’ll never be / My friends, they are legends, too modest to speak / You’d learn a whole lot of you’d give them a chance,” it’s almost impossible to avoid picturing that one friend your parents worried about in high school (and if you can’t, you’re probably that friend).

The welcome yet exhausting challenge of “Douglas” is followed by Minnesoda’s tranquil closer, “Soda Lake.” Built around a defiantly unvarnished keyboard line, the song lulls the EP to a temperate end. The chorus, if you can even call it one, occurs only once, with charmingly artificial strings to guide a falsetto that, despite its brief tenure in the forefront of the song, is thoroughly hypnotizing.

What makes the War Presidents one of the best college bands Boston has seen in years has nothing to do with bravado, although Minnesoda proves they’re certainly capable of it. But even with their more adventurous sophomore EP out of the way, we’ve still not heard a self-indulgent note in their now eight-song recorded catalogue. There is nothing more exciting than watching a band so equally self-aware and ambitious grow from the ground up; it would certainly be in Allston’s best interest to discover the outstanding music that’s being made within its otherwise dingy, stagnant limits.

About Mike -- I am a journalism student at Emerson College getting ready to graduate in December. I've done investigative work for the New England Center for Investigative Reporting and covered beats in Bridgewater and Dorchester, but my passion is music. When I'm not blurring the line between obsession and enjoyment while listening to Pavement or Bruce Springsteen, I'm punching walls over the Celtics. Twitter: @mikeflanagan2.

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