One of the truly amazing things about music is that somehow, year in and year out, we can be surprised. Whether it’s a band previously written off coming into their own, a stalwart shaking things up and going in a new direction, or one of the countless other possibilities, the releases that end up sticking with us are the ones we never saw coming. The first release that could fall into this category in 2015 comes from a familiar voice, in the form of the self-titled EP from Empty Houses, a trio featuring Fireworks vocalist/lyricist Dave Mackinder and multi-instrumentalist Adam Mercer. The duo are fresh off of releasing their most mature, boundary-pushing release yet with their full-time band, but this time around, they’ve enlisted vocalist Ali Shea for an experimental project that seeks to find out whether Mackinder’s soul-bearing lyrics work in a doo-wop/indie-pop sound.
If the preceding lines were not enough of an indication, this EP will be a huge surprise for fans looking for Mackinder’s signature delivery that has helped make Fireworks such an endearing, honest force in the pop-punk scene. It should be noted that Mackinder’s voice is not heard once on this entire EP, and that’s one of the many reasons that it will pleasantly surprise you. It seems Mackinder and Mercer have teamed up with a star in the making in Ali Shea. Her voice is so effortlessly soulful, as she croons over simple-yet-unique landscapes anchored mostly by guitars, drums, and keys. Opening track “Far Away” is powered by a mellow, beachy guitar riff, and sets up the lyrical theme of letting go of a failed relationship, despite the obvious heartache it’s resulted in. This melancholy is ended with a hint of optimism, as Shea goes from “trying to convince” herself that she’s “alright living without it” throughout the song’s chorus, to finally saying “Now I’m alright living with out it” at its close.
“Leaving You” has a similar structure, as it begins with Shea observing that she’s being left behind. As the song progresses, however, the feeling of wanting to improve, as Shea emotes “I’ve been wasting all I’ve been saving, now I’m cashing out.” It’s in this realization that the tables turn again, as Shea becomes the one leaving her lover behind. The EP hits its hardest-hitting track with “Lost at Sea,” as a lone guitar opens the track, before a forlorn trumpet brings in the piano and drums. The instrumentation creates a feeling of longing in Shea’s voice, as Mackinder’s lyrics paint a lost love as hopeless a venture as finding the right way when you’re swept up in the currents of the ocean. It’s here that Shea lets the most emotion bleed through, and despite the first two tracks offer endings that hint at hope, there is none to be found. Featuring only a piano, “These Clocks Are Not Misleading” continues the flow of melancholy, as Shea seems to be taking the role of the heartbreaker, attempting to convince her significant other that it’s time to let go. It’s a difficult position to be in, and the presence of the lone piano helps drive the point home, as Shea is left to her solitude at song’s end.
In a release full of them, the Empty Houses EP has one more trick up its sleeve, as the wonderfully upbeat “Thunderstorms” wraps things up with an unashamed ode to new love. Beginning with a much more upbeat piano tone than its predecessor, the track moves like a swing-dance track, effortlessly getting you to bob your head. The infectious chorus is the perfect soundtrack for a date. “You’re the one I’m dreaming of,” Shea admits, as she continues to list the ways she isn’t getting enough of the person she’s become so infatuated with. Ending an EP whose other four songs have a great deal of sadness in them, “Thunderstorms” allows the EP to follow the structure of its first two tracks: beginning with a melancholy tone, but gaining the strength to move on, and looking to the future with an uncompromising optimism.
Thanks to all the surprises this short-but-sweet release throws at you, Empty Houses have wasted no time becoming a name to watch moving forward. Dave Mackinder has three full-lengths worth of proof from his duties in Fireworks that shows his talents as a songwriter, but this release shows even more that he’s one of the most creative minds in the scene right now. While it would have been interesting to see Mackinder’s vocal approach to these songs, it’s not an issue at all, thanks to Ali Shea’s talents as a singer. With instrumentation that’ sways from indie-pop to surf-pop, doo-wop to emo, and can really go in any direction from there, it’s plain to see that Empty Houses have talent by the bushel. Their debut self-titled EP will leave you pondering your own adventures in love, and hoping that this isn’t the last we’ve heard from this pleasantly surprising trio.