Bitter Vanilla opens with a few uneasy notes, but this discord quickly descends into a gentle, upbeat melody, and I can't think of a better description of the EP than that: joyful discomfort.
Now here me out: I dig mopey music. I dig it a lot. But there has to be more to it than the stories being told. No matter how sad you can get, something has to invite the listener back for another round. It has to be clever. It has to be inventive. Most of all, it actually has to be pleasant for your audience. Zachary Freitas seems to get this. Bitter Vanilla is a brief sample, with four tracks running roughly fifteen minutes. In that time frame there isn't much room allotted for storytelling, and so Freitas sticks to a few simple concepts: a love song to start, a goodbye to finish and the evolution and decline of a relationship in between.
What keeps this formula fresh (beyond Freitas' own way with words, which I'll get into) is a certain discord between the stories being told and the sounds used to tell them. Bitter Vanilla is predominantly acoustic and lo-fi. The guitar work is bright and glowing, the melodies simple but not minimalistic or bare, catchy from the first listen, even during the most downbeat moments. But the lynchpin of Freitas’ signature is a sense of closeness: these recordings, welcoming as they are, are also very claustrophobic. Be it an intentional choice or not, the vocals sound like they were recorded up close and in a small room, and the effect created is an odd sort of dissonance between the warm folk-esque songs and the sound of his voice. Don't get me wrong: he sings very well and at no point does his voice show signs of strain of the rough edges synonymous with DIY recording, but there's that hint of something to his voice that distinctly separates it from the rest of the music. Personally, I find it a unique touch that adds a slight sense of desperation to the songs.
In terms of lyrics Freitas takes an indirect approach to telling stories we already know. He combines tried and true scenarios with unusual images and phrases, keeping one foot on familiar ground and another in a world all its own. “Toss Away the Words (For the Birds)” is how the EP concludes, and the first verse is a pretty safe set-up: the recognition that love is dead, a reference to bridges burned, a changing of appearances. The second verse then takes a magical realism bend: the narrator identifies with a bird (“though it's none of your concern/I've been flying higher to the moon”) after finding a bird with broken wings upstairs. All of the pieces connect, but it's not a straight A to B sort of thing, and that's the charm of it.
Meanwhile, “I'll Be The One To” takes the idea of a love song and turns it on its ear with a brief moment of uncomfortable honesty: though the second verse is Freitas pining to be the great romantic rescuer, there's a brief admission in the first verse that he'll “be the one to leave you in the lost and found” when he's had his fill with the chorus reassuring that someone will find his love and put them back on their feet. I like that he allows his imagination to wander outside the realm of the real but at the same time keeps you face to face with reality.
Even with its moments of heartbreak and difficulty, it's hard to call Bitter Vanilla a downer. In the end it's just cheerful enough to keep it fun. It's not so serious as to be pretentious and not so loose as to become a caricature. I can only hope that Freitas will give us a full album of songs in a similar vein down the road.
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