(Big Legal Mess/Fat Possum)
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Their successful debut album, Phantom Limb, was just released a year ago, but the duo of singer-guitarist Justin Kunkel-Schuster and drummer-vocalist Andrew Bryant, also known as Water Liars, are already back to ride that momentum with a new full-length. Wyoming is the album’s name and it’s a fitting moniker even though it was recorded in Mississippi, because the songs here leave plenty of prairie-like open spaces between Kunkel-Schuster’s dreamy picking and Bryant’s amiable thumping, the kind of expanse where one could wander, wonder, and get lost.
Wyoming definitely has the feel of a second album, in that the band is now confident enough in their footing to try a little bit of everything. As a result, it’s hard to pin down this duo to a single musical approach, and that’s just fine because the diversity is refreshing. There is a little bit of Fleet Foxes’ harmonized yearning here, some of Grizzly Bear’s prickly indie rock there. Gorgeous first single “Linens” sets the bar pretty high for Dawes’ brand of sensitive songcraft, while the band goes into more soulful territory with the arpeggio-filled balladry of “Cut A Line” and “You Work Days I Work Nights.”
The constant throughout is Kunkel-Schuster’s high-arcing vocals. Lyrically, he tends more toward the bitter than the sweet. Opening track “Sucker” laments that “I was just another sucker leaving,” one of a few songs in which he sarcastically thanks an ex for making him see “The world is just the things you keep to lose,” as he sings on the title track. That downbeat tone makes the softer sentiments of “Linens” and the pretty acoustic ditty “How Will I Call You” really stand out.
Water Liars have a knack for building atmosphere with their spare instrumentation. “Wyoming” sounds like a two-man U2, while “Fine Arts” starts out slow and dreamy only to have the reverie broken by a furious electric squall. Some of their songs don’t quite cash in on the build-up, however, ending abruptly before the emotional pay-off ever comes. That unresolved feeling may have been the artistic intention, but it still leaves the listener hanging.
That’s a small issue that future efforts are likely to rectify. Wyoming is always engaging and interesting and, as mentioned earlier, features one of the early song-of-the-year candidates in “Linens.” By the time Kunkel-Schuster wails wordlessly in the final moments of brooding closing track “Fire” while Bryant thumps along behind him, Water Liars have banished any worries of a sophomore slump into the furthest reaches of those wide open spaces.