Though I spent several cherished months as a trombone player in the fifth grade, I have little other musical training. (That stint, however, did earn me friendships that lasted exactly three weeks after elementary school ended.)
Nonetheless, I jumped at the chance to review Stranger, the latest EP by Saint Savage. The best critic is at times the one who holds no expectations about what a certain work should be and can instead be entirely open to new experiences and frames of thought.
Stranger comes on the heels of Saint Savage’s 2015 release, The Fair-Weather Friend. Though markedly shorter than their debut album, Stranger showcases a much more mature sound that Fair-Weather was largely missing. There are shades of Saint Savage’s electrofusion present in their newest work, but the music seems more deliberate and more expository.
What is perhaps most refreshing about the band is that they don’t fit perfectly into any one musical genre or category. One can easily relate their sound in Stranger to a coffeehouse, Jack Johnson-esque aesthetic, though it seems almost remiss to limit them to any one label. On SoundCloud, they market themselves as “indie rock”, which I suppose fits Saint Savage with this newest work. Still, I am not prepared to give them any single brand.
I critique each song in Stranger below.
The album’s title song leads in with a riff reminiscent of a singer-songwriter jam. Gradually, an edgier, rock melody builds as the story latent in the music emerges. I wasn’t a big fan of the first real break in the song, in which the vocalist demands of the listener, “Be my stranger… tonight I take the wager.”
The sounds found in the second half of the song, however, more than make up for that weak spot. That soft, progressive mandolin melody temporarily lulls the listener, disorienting her, much like a stranger in a new situation. The beat then gives way to a new chapter in the song in which the vocalist concedes, “I don’t want to be your angel.”
Surely there is some risk—a wager—involved in becoming a stranger, someone that seemingly starts anew, without emotional baggage or a history. The narrator, it appears, isn’t quite ready for the implications of that renewal, even if only comes for the night.
The song ends with the same chorus from earlier that could have used some fine-tuning. Perhaps where this composition shines most is in its story-telling. A vivid image materializes through the lyrics and disparate sounds. The narrator fights with the notion of being someone without a past and how anyone, particularly the woman he is pursuing, is thereby given license to fill in the gaps.
Lost in a Thought
I loved “Lost in a Thought” almost immediately. The melody starts much in the same way that “Stranger” does- the slow strumming of a guitar that eventually leads to a change in rhythm. This time, a stirring violin accompaniment takes the place of a progressive rock beat.
Nonetheless, that invasion is only transient.
Soon, an edged voice refrains, “I don’t want to stand out.” Its very placement in the song, however, makes that statement into a bit of a paradox. Like the mandolin in “Stranger”, the violin soothes listeners and with this sudden verbal admission, they are jilted. The narrator can’t help but stand out when juxtaposed against such soft strings.
Is that contrast a bad thing? In the context of the song, no. The repetition of that structure for most of the first half of “Lost in a Thought” seems to mimic one’s mental state when a thought is particularly nagging. There is beauty in the occasional respite, sure, but one can’t get away from that singular rumination– “I don’t want to stand down.”
An indie rock feel permeates through the second half of the song, which is filled with questions that most young romantics can relate to. How do you make someone notice you without that person being aware of your intention? How do you reveal your interest to another while simultaneously appearing disinterested?
There are no answers to be found here. “Lost in a Thought” only leads us further into a existential maze.
Like “Stranger”, this song also tells a story about love. The theme perhaps intended by the EP— that love is fickle, at times unobtainable, and lacking clear-cut boundaries— comes alive through the range of sounds and instruments found within each composition. It is at once a brilliant and profound approach to story-telling.
This song was the perfect conclusion to an EP like Stranger. Like its predecessors, a story slowly begins to emerge, once again about a woman who the narrator can’t quite wrap his head around. There is a certain amount of uncertainty: is Mary Ann a fantasy, a spurned lover, or perhaps an extension of the thought above?
I couldn’t quite gauge the exact progression of events in “Mary Ann” and it’s possible that was the exact intention of the songwriters. There’s mention of possible suicide ideation, either by the narrator or Mary Ann, and a stinging sense of regret. But, regret of what exactly? Surely we each wish to “relive it all” when recalling episodes that could have gone differently, though “Mary Ann” offers no answers as to what should or could happen next.
I might be reading too much into the song’s lyrics.
On a more stylistic note, I thoroughly enjoyed the John Denver-like melody that flowed for most of “Mary Ann”. It’s akin to “Leaving, On a Jet Plane” but with more edge.
Unlike “Stranger” or “Lost in a Thought”, this song packs much more concordance and maintains the soft folk-rock sound that perhaps best defines Saint Savage at the moment. Without fail, there are infusions of electrical synths splashed throughout “Mary Ann”, which don’t complement the folk sound well.
It may be the case that Saint Savage is still trying to settle on a certain musical motif that can define them, much in the same way you know a U2 song almost immediately after it begins playing. This aim is well understood, though best left for rehearsals, or a gig, and not for a studio release.
Never mind the electronic synths, nearing the end of “Mary Ann”, I found my feet beginning to stomp as I expected a firm conclusion to the unanswered questions above. Again, none were afforded to me. Just as well, I suppose, that Mary Ann offers the narrator no answers either.
There is still progress to be made by Saint Savage, particularly in owning a particular range of sounds that can better define them as a group. At the same time, of course, this versatility might also a fantastic means to stand out, despite the rumination in “Lost in a Thought”.
All told, Stranger is a strong indication that Saint Savage will continue to build and mature its sound as well as channel its story-telling prowess. I am certainly anticipating their next work, which might finally offer the foregone answers to some of the complexities of love and identity.