Premium marks the solo debut of Sam Evian, a.k.a. Sam Owens of the Brooklyn-based indie trio, Celestial Shore. Running in at just 35 minutes across 9 tracks, Evian chooses to stick close to an understated, mellow indie-rock sound, highlighting his soft, filtered vocals and impressive guitar playing. Though solid throughout, however, understated too often leads to underwhelming.
If I were to compare Evian’s sound with any current band, I’d point towards Phoenix. Evian’s vocals seemed to take after Thomas Mars, albeit at a wispier, higher pitch. Some of the melodies on Premium reminded me of the gentler side of Phoenix’s debut, United (2000), while tracks like “Dark Love”, with it’s ringing synth, echoed Phoenix’s Bankrupt! (2013). Evian’s songwriting and structure, however, seem to run more through the washed out, Beach Boys sound that seems to constantly reappear in indie music these days. It’s surprising and a little disappointing for a chronicle of life in New York to sound so much like another sunbaked Californian dream.
The lyrical subjects are nebulous and unfocused—track 2, “Cactus”, is a (tongue-in-cheek?) lovesong revolving around the metaphor of the lover as a cactus, while track 6, “I Need a Man”, is a vague swing at social injustice. That’s not to say there can’t be lyrical diversity in an album, but when every song is delivered in the same, soothing vocal style, everything amalgamates into a forgettable lump. Certain tracks such as “Carolina” and “Summer Running” showcase a bluesy swing and playful time signatures, respectively, but even these aspects became either drowned out or dropped midway through the song, replaced by the same calming formula that tranquilizes the album.
The real highlight here is Evian’s impressive guitar playing, which unfortunately plays a too-small supporting role. Glossy riffs complement vocal melodies, while the rhythm guitar and slide guitar that run through the album evoke an old-style country feeling, oddly enough. For me, those touches were the most charming part of the album. There’re only a couple guitar solos on the album, which is a real shame. “Cactus”, the highlight track on the album for me, is capped with one of those solos where each note feels perfectly picked, rather than long-practiced chops being exorcised onto the track. In a way, the whole album benefits (in the short term) and suffers (long term) for this reason. It’s restrained and sometimes relaxing.
Sam Evian’s debut record, Premium, shows considerable talent and too much restraint. The guitar work feels chained down by nine tracks featuring too much of the same, sleepy vocal range and the need for the instrumentation as support. I wouldn’t call any track on the album ‘bad,’ but some of them felt underwhelming.
review by Matthew Wardell