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Unlugged - by Rick Coughlin
The sophomore five song EP effort, Unplugged, from 53 Willys doesn’t disappoint, as the band shifts gears from the frantic, eclectic, and hopped up 80’s punk vibe of their debut long player Four Wheel Low. Keeping true to the band’s namesake of a machine that travels, this is a travelling album at it’s finest. Where Four Wheel Low left you wanting to crack a PBR, slam a shot, and tell somebody to hold your beer while you dance, this is a sit back and cruise north album. And by north, I mean northern Michigan, because, you know, the midwest does it best.
Unplugged is aptly named because of the heavy focus on acoustic based songs, and this mode fits 53 Willys like a nice pair of well loved Levis. In fact, the more you listen, the more the EP feels like said Levis. Phil Macfarland lends a warm Eric Earley of Blitzen Trapper fame, or Bob Dylanesque rasp to the opening track Appaloosa, and follow up tracks Ukeditty, and Every Girl, while Todd Wire, drummer extraordinaire, and backbeat mastermind, lends his pleasant and surprising mellow to ease your harsh on Maui and Let It Shine. Cue the Levis commercial theme songs. Not that this is a sellout album. This is, to be clear, an indie effort, with big heart and won the hard way.
Appaloosa kicks off the EP and instantly feels like a road trip you want to be on, touching on the Allman brothers acoustic love of Sweet Melissa. Let it Shine highlights a fantastic addition to the band with Todd Wire’s vocals. This track also features a really sexy warble of the Fender Rhodes on keyboards by Dan Silkworth, who seems to have ditched the more synthesized sounds of the last album for the more organic and vintage on Unplugged. Silkworth, who pulls double duty as both chairman of the boards and the Slick Willie of sax, really drives home the classic tones with this round. In fact, the entire album is more organic, and not the kind you get at Whole Foods. Hell, it certainly won’t cost you as much as a trip to that grocer, and will leave you with something to enjoy for years to come. This isn’t about groceries thought, this is about a band that has played together through thick and thin for coming up on a decade, and it shows.
Ukeditty, features some of Shawn Grose’s best melodic bass playing and it shines through, as it does on the rest of the album. Bass players almost never get the love they deserve, and while Grose’s songwriting and vocals featured prominently on Four Wheel Low, he settled into the backseat on this one, but it wouldn’t be fair to say the bass plays a backseat role here. It’s tone for miles, and lends a proper and compelling melodic movement to counter the persistent strum of Macfarland’s acoustic stylings.
Maui is the only track that harkens back to the humor and fun of the debut album. Not to say that this album isn’t fun, it’s just more pensive, which can be fun, right? Not every album from any artist needs to be like an AC/DC album that basically got made 30+ times. But Maui is catchy, fun, and I’ll be damned if you don’t want a Mai Tai or Pina Colada while listening. True to nature, this song will be understood by anyone who has survived a midwest winter. The only thing better than this song is actually going to Maui or at least drinking heavily enough to make you forget you actually chose to live in Michigan.
It might be a misnomer to call this album confident, because, if you know these guys, they are plenty confident, and were so on Four Wheel Low. But this is different. 53 Willys is a band. 53 Willys is just warming up. This feels like a band that’s settling into their concept and not afraid to explore their more mellow side, both lyrically and musically. Thankfully for you, they let you listen.