The last original recorded material from local country outfit Molly Alphabet came out in January 2012. So it’s safe to say we’re overdue for their brand new five-song EP, Traces. It officially drops on Saturday, May 13th, with a release show that same night at the AOH Club in the band’s home base of Lawrenceville. It’s unfortunate that the wait was so long, but it’s clear that that time was well-used. Traces exemplifies all of country’s best characteristics.
“Country” has the capacity to be somewhat of an off-putting word for many music lovers, but this record shows just how captivating it can be when done well. Storytelling; having new, interesting things to say; classic instruments that come together in smart, thoughtful ways; and a little bit of twang—this is what good country is really about. Luke Bryan, Miranda Lambert, and their insincere ilk can have a seat. Rockabilly and folk influences are also apparent here, in touches such as rollicking guitar riffs and shimmering organ-sounding keys. This makes for a blend of classic styles that’s very much their own.
Each song on the group’s 2012 self-titled release was written by Molly’s collaborator and husband, Chet Vincent (of the Big Bend.) On Traces, however, he only pens the fourth track, “White Wine.” He, of course, remains an important instrumental contributor, but Molly’s songwriting chops are on full display here, and they’re impressive. The EP is consistently charming, intimate, and thoughtful. It somehow manages to be a comforting listen while repeatedly surprising you. Easy-to-listen-to instrumentals, which ebb and flow so seamlessly, tend to accompany uncomfortable or heavy lyrical subject matter. It’s as if she’s cleverly wrapped her problems, or things she might have trouble saying, in the warmest, most timeless packaging. Her lovely voice, through which her lifelong Pittsburgh residency shines, is a key element of that as well. Simply put, this is old-fashioned done very, very right.
The band consists of Molly Alphabet on lead vocals and acoustic guitar, Teal Fitzpatrick on keys, Patricia Imbrogno on bass, Daniel Dickison and Chet Vincent on guitar, Read Connolly on lap steel, and Josh Carter on drums.
We start off strong with the title track, “Traces.” A lilting, head-nodding beat and pleasantly drawling instrumentals (especially Connolly’s steel) comprise a backdrop for some impressive lyrics. The song is about a certain type of nostalgia: a resigned honesty of acknowledging memories and the power they can have over you, even when you’ve moved on in life and are objectively doing better. The use of specificity to tell a universal story is one of the primary aims of songwriting. It’s a tough balance to get right, but here, Molly Alphabet nails it. I could really quote the whole thing as an example, but I’ll just stick to the bridge: “I can’t predict the things that bring you to my mind/Unless it’s petty theft on TV or a well-cast fishing line/Zippo lighters at the county fair, tire tracks at the county line/Though my heart’s moved on twice over, mem’ry sometimes falls behind.” (You can, and should, check out its music video below, or by clicking here.)
“Lickin’ the Windows” picks up the pace and shows off the higher part of Molly’s vocal range. She explains the unconventional title in the first verse: “In French they say if you ain’t shoppin’/you keep walkin’, you’re just lickin’ the windows.” It’s a fun, compelling take on a legitimate concern in a relationship—the other person having a cinder block on their gas pedal. Lines such as, “But if we move too fast, we’re bound to pass/the beauty stuck in midair,” and “I like the ways in which my face is getting older/and, I like the ways in which my friends are getting bolder,” capture the combination of insight and sass that embodies Molly’s style and delivery. The song’s overall fast speed is contrasted by the drawn-out melodic walkdown on the repeated word “through” at the end of the chorus. This choice seems deliberate for a song in which the speaker is encouraging their loved one to stop “crank[ing] up the juice” and take the time to slow down, breathe, and enjoy the ride. Listen for the organ-esque key solo from Fitzpatrick during the bridge; it’s a delight.
“He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not” keeps the energy high with a cheeky, grown-up take on that familiar childhood flower-petal-picking game. Molly spends the verses listing various types of flowers: “Baby’s breath and daffodils/Me and black-eyed susan and the wine we swill/Lord have mercy on the worries we kill/by the time, we reach, the top;” and the chorus being feisty about them: “He loves me, he loves me not/He can kiss my you-know-what/I’m not countin’ flower petals anymore.” Between the cool rockabilly guitar riff, the hand claps that come in at the third verse, and the breakneck pace of the ending, this tune is a reminder that music can be fun and playful without getting sloppy.
The transition into a slower ballad (written by Vincent), “White Wine,” demonstrates this EP’s sharp sense of pacing. The first three songs progressively grow in speed and energy, building excitement. But before things go off the rails, we’re brought back down again, to a sound that’s a gorgeous sort of melancholy. Pretty vocal harmonies (reminiscent of The Lone Bellow) perfectly complement the classic, moody tone of both guitars and the lap steel. The lyrics are evocative, occasionally pastoral, and ultimately tell a love story: “Fog out in the pasture/Trouble on the vine/My heart beatin’ faster/when you’re by my siii-ide.” The high note Molly holds on the last words of the verses is particularly great. This track, to quote the chorus, “[went] straight to my head.”
It’s tough to pick a favorite song from Traces, but I’m quite fond of the closer, “This Is Not a Test.” A rollicking beat from Carter complements Molly’s rapid-fire delivery of the verses, which address someone who seems to have an exaggerated sense of self-importance. In an EP full of great lyrics, the line “Hey no one’s laughing, no one cares/Those aren’t daggers, they’re just stares,” is a standout. Despite quips like that (and this question in the bridge: “Whooo, are you trying to impress/other than/whooo, you are trying to undress?”), the speaker is doing more than just frying this guy’s life. It’s a matter-of-fact mixture of empathy and ego-diminishing, wrapped up in a fun, peppy-sounding package: “Your heart is just a muscle with a circuit running ‘round/A head full of ideas, it’s just nerves too tightly wound/And you were just a lonely boy who happened to be ‘round/And underneath your house, it’s just the ground.” This track is another example of solid, honest songwriting, and it’s a good way to conclude.
One of my favorite lines from the title song that I didn’t mention earlier is: “When there’s never much to say, it’s hard to have a way with words.” But, as Traces proves, Molly Alphabet has plenty to say, and knows exactly how to say it.
The EP will be available for purchase on Bandcamp when it drops this Saturday. It’s also included with the price of admission ($10) to the release show Saturday night; find the Facebook event with more details here. And follow along with the band page here.