by Brian J. Audette
Barely five years have passed since Kelsey Wilson and Alexander Beggins first began writing songs together, but in that time these two and the musicians they’ve recruited to join them as Wild Child have begun to blow up nationally in a big way. With their songs featured on NPR, indie music charts, and elsewhere over the last three years and with breakout performances on The Late Show with Craig Ferguson and at the Bonnaroo music festival, Wild Child have achieved great success in a relatively short amount of time. With the recent release of their third LP Fools along with an ambitious national tour they seem poised to use that success as a launching point for even greater things. Given these successes and the promise offered by their sophomore release The Runaround, this latest album has had more than a little hype surrounding it. The question is: how well does it live up to that hype?
I must confess that I’ve been batting this review around in my head like a cat toying with a mouse since Fools was released just over a month ago. Initially the album just didn’t click with me, but over time as my preconceptions wore away and I learned to accept Fools for what it was, it has become possibly my favorite release by Wild Child to date.
Since the band’s humble beginnings, Kelsey Wilson and Alexander Beggins have been the core of Wild Child’s music and lyrics. While early on vocal duties were mostly shared fairly equally between the two – giving their folksy pop an almost Cash/Carter-like feel – through subsequent releases we’ve seen Beggins take less of a vocal role. This was something that at first put me at odds with Fools. I enjoyed the back and forth of their earlier releases, but was dismayed to find that on Fools – while present on many tracks – Beggins’ vocals take a back seat to Wilson’s. Ultimately it’s part of a tonal and creative shift on Fools that took me some getting used to, but that I have become a full throated supporter of. This is not to say that I don’t have some criticisms however.
I think my minor, initial issues with Fools can be summed up in its choice of lead off single and first track, the eponymous “Fools.” There’s something about the construction and production of this track that just feels like a half-hearted attempt to recapture the bounce, playfulness, and sheer delight of the previous album’s debut, “Crazy Bird”. Maybe it’s in the mix, or the production, but the flat drums, fuzzed out bass, and staccato chorus of “Fools” just turned me off and colored my first few listens of the album poorly until I decided to skip it. The album’s second track “The Cracks” does a better job of accomplishing what “Fools” seems to be attempting, but still feels off to me, though its hooks are much catchier and its tone better fits the rest of the album’s melancholic lament.
Where Fools really comes to life is on its third track “Bullets,” an unassuming song at first, but masterfully arranged, and building to a brilliant climax. It’s also the first track on the album that really makes the case for Beggins to take more of a back seat and for Kelsey Wilson to step up as a vocal soloist or at the very least a solo lead. While her voice has always been one of the defining features of Wild Child, this track and several others on Fools give it the spotlight it deserves, accentuating her sonic range and the mesmerizing lilt of her vocal delivery. The next time we get a taste of this on Fools is at the end of side one with “Break Bones”, in my mind the album’s true single.
As far as piano-backed, female vocal pop ballads go, Wilson gives the likes of Tori Amos and Regina Spektor a run for their money on this track. Thematically the song cuts to the core of what Fools is about: lost love. As the chorus opens we’re struck with Wilson’s aching revelation “There is more breaking here than we could ever mend” though only a few lines later she seems to grasp at straws, declaring that “If this ends we’ll only feel worse.” The lines here are soulfully delivered by Wilson and expertly mixed, accentuating each undulating note. This is a song about the beginning of the end, the irreconcilable argument that leads to a break up. “Break Bones” is in every way the mission statement of Fools and the moment I understood that was when I fell in love with the album.
“Take It” leads off side two with another strong thematic track and vocal outing for Wilson. Musically “Take It” is a bit more upbeat, following on the heels of “Break Bones” frustration with a more confrontational tone as Wilson retorts “How ‘bout trusting when I’m not around?” The track culminates in a lovely layering of vocals pleading for sanity amidst a collapse of negotiations. Beggins has the final word in a quiet moment at the end of the track. Accompanied by a few random ukulele strums he says “It’s easy/It’s easy when there’s a conversation,” a statement of subtle frustration that anyone on the defending side of a break up can relate to.
Two tracks later the unassuming “Reno”– quietly scored by baritone uke, subtle piano, and percussion– makes an attempt to reason in the face of scorned love. “I know your mind goes running wild/But I’m always at your door” Wilson pleads, post break up, but it’s obviously too late. When Sadie Wolfe’s cello rumbles in during the albums closing it’s a heart-wrenching punctuation to the song’s lyrical lament. The album closes with the melancholy, but weirdly bouncy and upbeat “Trillo Talk” whose lyrics ultimately relay a reluctant coming to terms with the break up that has run its course through the album, with Wilson singing “You said I should’ve been a better babe/And you can go and be a better babe/For anyone else/Anyone else but me.”
Viewed as a whole I’m still luke-warm on Fools. As a front to back album there are odd issues with sequencing and mixing that bug me in a way that listening to isolated tracks doesn’t. As simply a collection of tracks however (though stronger for their thematic ties) I feel like Fools works very well, which seems an odd thing to say and yet it’s proven true for me on many subsequent listens. In the end, while I had trepidations at first regarding what I saw as a possibly ill-advised departure from the format that had endeared me to them in the first place, Wild Child have proven me wrong and Fools has won me over.
Wild Child will be returning from their national tour in support of their album, playing Stubb’s (outdoor) on Saturday, November 28th.
Brian Audette lives somewhere in Austin within a pillow fort made of broken dreams. He only comes out to see shows and buy beer. He has a surprisingly well maintained lawn and is using it to breed an army of attack mosquitoes with which to take over the world. Brian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @bjaudette.