There’s something nostalgic about Paper Thick Walls’ debut album, A Thousand Novels, but not in the sense that they’ve borrowed from their musical predecessors, as many bands do. Rather, in the Chicago-based group’s ability to capture reminiscence in song. They write songs that sound like they should be accompanied by a sentimental photo montage.
The record kicks off with co-lead singer and writer Kate Schell singing about watching her father fish in “Old Weathered Wooden Dock.” From there, Schell and fellow vocalist Eric Michaels paint a series of vivid scenes, to great effect. But don’t be fooled, the chorus reminds you that “it’s a coping mechanism to immerse oneself in oh what lovely scenes.” Go ahead and reminisce, but don’t detach yourself too much from reality. Similar themes are a constant on the record.
Despite being, quite literally, about taking a bullet for the one you love, “Orange Tree” is an upbeat folky tune, well-accented with banjo riffs. Schell and Michaels sing about how they’re “going to make it out alive,” and by the end of the song you believe they will. And though their vocals are stripped down, simplistic and sometimes soft, they aren’t drowned out by the music, but weave right in.
Overall the album is on the quieter side, but does have moments of the kind of cacophonous orchestration popularized by the likes of Sufjan Stevens and Arcade Fire. This is most apparent in the final track, “Infinite,” which starts off simply with just an organ (which, in itself gives the song an incredibly rich sound) and piano, but slowly adds bells and chimes, strings and operatic backing vocals. By the end of the song they all resonate together, and then suddenly drop back to just the organ melody. Until that point, the effect is subtle, but the sudden change at the end is attention-grabbing and puts a nice finish on the album.
A Thousand Novels does have some rough patches. Some of the lyrics in “NyQuil,” are bizarre to the point of being distracting. The song on a whole is sweet, the stuff of bedtime stories, and talks about building a fort and getting visits from far-off celestial bodies. But lines that describe some one’s lips as “like Vicodin” and a mention of needing to take NyQuil to sleep seem out of place. I’ll admit, that song’s placement four tracks in almost made me turn it off.
But “NyQuil” is truly my only complaint when it comes to A Thousand Novels. The album is an enjoyable listen and would serve as a great background for a rainy day when you just don’t want to venture outside.
If you’re near Chicago, the band’s record release party will be at the Hideout on May 6. The show starts at 10 p.m. Tickets are $8.