James McCurley (Vertica, Black Pages) has always been some strange sonic shapeshifter. His past work ranges from mythical, post-hardcore concept albums to experimental bedroom pop. In his latest incarnation as Prisoner & Key, McCurley opts for yet another new frontier.
The project is heartier than McCurley’s previous efforts, with a heavier focus on lower-register vocals, a healthy dose of acoustic instrumentation, and lyrics which feel more confessional than anything else. It’s Murder By Death meets Orville Peck meets Manchester Orchestra meets David Bazan.
McCurley is joined by Aaron Gillespie to help round the sound out – and even distort it at times. But as you might expect, the end result is solid. There’s banjo, there are ethereal layered vocals, there are synthesizers. And while the core of this EP is perhaps more singularly-focused than its full-length predecessor, it’s maybe even stronger for it.
There’s a definite commercial appeal here without every feeling too mainstream. These songs speak to McCurley’s aptitude as a songwriter with over a decade of projects under his belt. Even though this project plays a bit more to simplicity, there is always just enough going on to keep this from being another regurgitation of the washed-up open mic night songwriter vibe. Production nuances, like reverby droplets or aforementioned noisy distortions, keep the songs continually fresh and give them each a distinct personality.
“Scarlet” is one of the most adventurous songs of the collection, colliding post-punk guitar with a fiddle break for a result that feels like a musical equivalent of the part of the highway that bridges urban sprawl with vast nothingness. It’s a good picture of what the higher-energy Prisoner & Key tracks are like.
“Porcelain” is a local highlight, carrying a certain gritty darkness paired with post-punk and industrial instrumentation. It builds to an almost danceable point as vocals fade out. And the lyrics here see McCurley wrestle with themes of belonging and purpose, further cementing the serious tone of the track.
Even so, these disparate elements never feel at odds with each other. There are certainly nods to acts who have helped with the proof of concept that country and folk can play well with the world of effects pedals, but Prisoner & Key seems to take a very specific recipe here and is able to replicate the proportions consistently. West Jordan Tapes is a strong EP that honors McCurley’s Virginian roots but isn’t afraid to incorporate vestiges of his time spent in the world of pop and experimental rock all the same. The end result is equally fun and serious. This is a project to watch.
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