I like to think of myself as a logical, scientifically-minded man; one not prone to superstition or a belief in anything that even borders on the occult, and certainly one to steer well clear of the "healing power of crystals", lay-lines and all that nonsense. And yet I find myself compelled to confess that I was witness to some mysterious alchemy whilst preparing for this review.
But before we delve further through The Scary Door, there's some background we should cover first: Tom Stephens has appeared twice before on this blog, first in a review of his old band, Tom Stephens and the Retreat's first EP, and then again when the band were kind enough to record a session and interview for the Bearfaced Podcast. So it almost goes without saying that I'm predisposed to look favourably on this, his first proper solo effort*. Or so you'd think...
Truth be told, I was gearing up for writing a non-too-complimentary review of his Division EP. Not because I thought the record was bad per se, but more because of my own personal tastes. For starters, knowing Tom's full-band work as well as I do I had certain expectations for this EP; expectations that left me somewhat blind-sided on my first listen. An all out "classic rock" record this is not, and it's most definitely not simply Tom Stephens and the Retreat minus the Retreat. Given how the band stuff came as an evolution of Tom's early solo stuff, I expected Division to be much in the same vein, just with less guitars and no drums. I took a couple of listens to realise that Tom was approaching this EP as something totally distinct from his work with the Retreat; the goals are different, the style and pace of the songwriting is different, the whole project stands on it's own two feet. At no point does the listener feel that there ought to be a band accompanying these songs. Now if all of this sounds pretty complimentary, that's because it is. I admire the process and the strength of character on display here, but crucially I didn't find myself responding to it on an emotional level. For some reason I just didn't really like it very much. And this is where the alchemy comes in.
I must hold my hands up and confess to a terrible crime: all my first impressions of this record were based on listening to it through the built in speakers on my laptop. I know, I know, mea culpa, how can any of you ever look me in the eye again, and so on and so forth... In my defence I've only just moved into a new flat and have yet to set up the stereo (I take these things very seriously, it's better not to do it at all than do it half-cocked). I do however, have a pair of very tasty (if I say so myself) headphones, and when I listened to Divison on those I was so shocked I nearly spilt my scotch... This record sounds phenomenal through headphones! Normally one expects a bit of difference (boosted bass response, reverb reduction, etc, and even more noticeable when the switch is from the tinny things one gets in laptops these days) but this was a remarkable transformation. The strings on _Family Tree _were a tsunami of lusciousness, and the acoustic guitar around which the rest of the record hangs morphed from a slightly 90's-sounding twang to a much meatier beast (although still not quite as much as I'd have liked).
If there's a moral to this story it's this: sort out your speakers before judging things, and download Tom Stephens' current EP from his Bandcamp page - it's free, and pretty good to boot.
Tom Stephens - Family Tree [audio //www.bearfacedrecords.com/EbMBlog_mp3s/TomStephens/TomStephens_FamilyTree.mp3]
*Of course, before his days with ...and the Retreat he was a simple singer-songwriter, and he's been featuring his solo efforts on his blog for quite some time now.