Remember When EP
by Chad Jewett
Say What You Mean, Allison Weiss’ 2013 full-length, was a well-honed model of power-pop fundamentals, a record whose songs averaged 3.3 minutes and managed to contain affecting narratives of emotional need, self-perceptive honesty, and expansive humanism, all while arriving in the efficient form one might associate with This Year’s Model or Here’s Where The Strings Come In. Essentially, Say What You Mean had the intrepid insight of Pinkerton, but shuttled inside songs that would have fit on the “Green Album.” Remember When, a five-song EP and her first release since Say What You Mean, finds the twenty-seven-year-old singer-songwriter tracing the boundaries that exist past the guitar-pop engines of her previous work. Like many a successful, engaging short album, the EP seems to be as much about what Allison Weiss can build next as anything else. The record is compelling chiefly because it feels so enamored with possibility.
The EP begins with the airy, buoyant title track, a bright three-minutes that pivots between the wood-grained emo jogs of Something To Write Home About and quiet verses that settle into strum-heavy pensiveness: “I use to know everything you wanted / I use to know everything you loved.” But the song’s central pleasure arrives in an enormous chorus – likely the most salient of Weiss’ career, and a promising sign of the ways in which the Georgia-born songwriter is finding new facets for her conversational melodies. There were harmonies and keyboards and this kind of precise production on Say What You Mean, but on “Remember When” it feels like this sort of studio sculpture is gaining purchase on the kind of song that you’d find yourself hoping Weiss would write – something where her grasp on day-to-day pangs would suddenly spark into something grand and sweeping – like how these sentiments actually feel.
“Giving Up” and “The Fall” both reflect the compact mini-bursts of Say What You Mean, built around crisply-recorded palm-mutes and minimalist short stories. The songs find Weiss coming to a point where her mastery of this autumnal pop-punk aesthetic is manifest, instinctive. One could imagine her writing a whole next record like this, likely with little trouble, so strong is Weiss’ grasp on dynamics and space and the balance of open air and dense blooms of sound. It’s the rest of the EP that leads one to believe she might not be interested. “The Fall” is especially notable in this regard, in some ways feeling like the song where Weiss has officially whittled down what can be done with two counterpoised guitars and a spartan rhythm section. Yet compared to the expansiveness that surround these songs on either side, the songs feel like achievements mainly for the ways in which they reach a conclusion, for the ways in which Weiss has come to the limits of the earth-toned power-pop ruminations of Say What You Mean.
Indeed, this underlines what is so fascinating about the experimental, free-range approach that Allison Weiss takes to Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend”. While one’s initial reaction might be to pine for a version of the song shaped by the melodic punk outlines of Say What You Mean, it’s actually something of a revelation to find Weiss instead slowing down the Swedish pop auteur’s original, disco-lite confection into something weary and difficult and moving. Robyn’s version was poignant for the ways in which it tried to dance away troubling feelings, to find joy in love’s uneven-ness. Weiss’ take works in the opposite direction, underlining the song’s complex, adult understandings of relationships with a subtle arrangement beginning with sparse guitar and ending with a cinematic corona of strings, guitar echoes, horns, and harmonies. The song slowly waxes into something stirring and gorgeous, the aural equivalent of a blank piece of paper slowly soaked in water-colors. If Weiss has always been a master of space and balance, never overloading her life-sized narratives with oversized arrangements, then “Call Your Girlfriend” offers a compelling way forward for that gift, an object lesson in how Weiss might make that knack for proportion work for more cinematic, expressionist purposes.
Remember When ends with the irreverent alt-country shuffle of “Take You Back,” a fleet three minutes of blue chords and rustic love-sick archetypes that Weiss supercharges with a deep sense of joy. So much of Weiss’ oeuvre so far as been wholly measured; “Take You Back” is more spry – scruffier and more willing to leave loose threads and uneven angles. The singer-songwriter’s voice is wrapped in a frayed blanket of warm distortion, which, rather than obscure her talent for expression, actually magnifies it, giving a charmingly worn quality to Weiss’ line-readings, to the ways in which she frequently bends certain notes and offers others like asides. The song eventually blossoms from a single acoustic guitar to a radiant dust-up, a single beam of horns highlighting Weiss as she reaches for the top of her register: “I will probably take you back.” It’s a sneakily clever line – precisely reflective of Weiss’ gift for understatement and conversation – and an even more intelligent use of quiet and commotion. Allison Weiss still finds remarkable possibility in equally remarkable exactness. What’s different about this EP is her sense of narrative. Say What You Mean was concerned with slices of life; Remember When finds the singer figuring out new ways to talk about old truths.