San Francisco – One of my earliest memories of Owl Paws takes place outside an obscure little art gallery in San Francisco. I’m taking rough drags off an American Spirit and talking to the band’s lead singer/guitarist Derek Schultz. He’s just finished a solo acoustic set at an event designed to raise awareness for environmental issues affecting the larger Bay Area. His voice is slightly raspy from the performance and the topic of conversation quickly shifts to the difficulty of surviving as a musician in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Though this evening occurred many hangovers ago, and my memory is most likely full of holes and half truths, I do believe that Schultz was both working at Whole Foods and interning at a recording studio just to make ends meet. His music was unfortunately relegated to something pursued during scraps of spare time. It’s a sadly familiar story for many (most) musicians, but despite the daily adversity, Derek never seemed susceptible to hopelessness. Sure, there was darkness in his lyrics, but in person he was all warmth and enthusiasm, a sort of cheerful defiance shining through to combat the ugly realities of a life that oftentimes doesn’t bend to our desires.
Flash forward a few years and I can recognize that defiance in the latest collection of songs from the trio Owl Paws which is comprised of Schultz, drummer Lucas Siobal and upright bassist Timothy Vickers. Heartbreak and loss permeate the atmosphere on the group’s very first full-length album entitled Reservoir, but the arrangements are so invigoratingly fresh and played with such a propulsive energy you might mistake them for victorious anthems instead of deeply emotional folk tunes. I suppose they should sound triumphant, in a way. These songs, after all, are about surviving the anguish, not completely succumbing to it.
So when Schultz sings, “Everyday I awake / wanting it all back again” on “Jagged Grin,” it doesn’t sound like a vacuous plea for help. Instead, it becomes a kind of rallying cry. Struggle echoes through his voice but the rhythm section backs it up with such passion it gives the track a formidable backbone. The thunderous toms concluding “The Field,” for instance, or the popping bass line on “Bring Me Back,” add an extra punch to the sorrowful melodies and the sometimes wincing honesty of the album.
That’s not to say the powerful rhythms completely mask some of the more scathing despair. “Eyes of the Prey” details a forlorn and alienated narrator against a lush string arrangement. Bright chords and soaring “oohs” somewhat belie the desperation in the country-tinged ballad “Outlines”. Then later, the layered, aching harmonies of “Coils of Spring” fully flesh out the pain in lines like, “If this is life and this is death / Then give me the reason I need.” The longing is clear and sharp, like ice picks chipping away at your heart, but it becomes palatable through Schultz’s singing. His bandmates’ backup vocals and the driving beats support even the darkest of his laments.
In between a few ferocious drum fills on Reservoir’s closer “The Things I Forgot,” Schultz warns the listeners looking for a silver lining to all the melancholy that, “There won’t be a guiding light / We’re still so lost in the middle of the night.” Maybe he doesn’t acknowledge it in his music, but there is some optimism to be shared. A lot has happened since that night in front of the obscure little art gallery. Owl Paws is playing bigger and bigger shows in the Bay Area. The band has finally released a full-length record. And said record is probably the best thing the guys have produced so far. Time to look on the bright side for a bit.
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