Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings – I Wasn’t Planning on the End
You already know the backstory if you’ve been reading this blog. However, the short version is that I discovered Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings purely by accident at a Rockwood Music Hall show in New York. At the time, this album was in production. I decided to order the CD before I decided to return to music journalism. As such, this is the last CD I purchased prior to re-entering music journalism. Because I hadn’t spun this disc enough times before I wrote about Bridget and company a few weeks ago, I saved the album review for later. Or, rather, now.
I’ll begin by pointing out that Bridget has an outstanding voice. She hits the notes with clarity and emotion, with the extraordinary control required by this sort of music. Her voice is soft and strong, ideal for the sort of alt-rock/Americana/roots-rock blend her band plays. However, in this particular genre, it is rare for a voice to set a band apart. And it probably doesn’t do the trick here, either. Vocals simply aren’t dominant enough in this relatively laid-back brand of music to prove the difference-maker. To quote your college philosophy professor, great vocals are necessary but not sufficient to set a band apart when playing this style of music. And, indeed, Bridget’s exceptional vocals more than fulfill that “necessary” requirement.
Indeed, while Bridget and the Viking Kings could have drawn a nice following simply playing a mellow, sometimes vaguely haunting sort of flowing folk-rock, they don’t do that. And it’s all about the songwriting. Indeed, that’s what’s special about this band. Each song, to a varying degree, has an “engine,” as I call it, driving the song. It’s too catchy/grabby to be a rhythm, but it infiltrates too much of the song to be a hook. It’s what makes Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings unique in a style of music in which it might otherwise be easy to get lost among the crowd. And it’s why I ordered this album as my last “civilian” act before starting this blog. I Wasn’t Planning on the End is a heck of a final purchase. The 10-song disc includes 3 re-recordings of previously-released songs plus 7 all-new originals.
“Elizabeth” is an excellent choice to start the disc, as it begins thinly and builds. Ultimately a slow-to-mid-tempo number, its “motor” is largely built upon the slightly-complex drum line; regardless, the slow-build nature of the song is well-structured to engage the listener. It’s followed by “Transient,” an intriguing number that draws a bit of the hauntingness out of Bridget’s voice while powered by bass and rhythm guitar. Debut single “Transient” acted as a “preview” track for the album, released online in advance of the CD release, so I was already relatively familiar with it. As with several of BD & the VKs’ songs, there’s a nice spot mid-song that utilizes silence and the return initially of a single instrument to grab the listener. (Did I mention I’m impressed with the band’s songwriting?)
Next up are two songs re-recorded from the band’s 3-cut January EP. First, that EP’s title track, has a catchy recurring guitar hook that melds with a rhythm-driven “motor” to drive the song along while featuring Bridget’s crisply expressive vocals and other extra, enjoyable nuggets of musical detail. It’s followed by “The Breakdown,” whose catchy little guitar hook is what convinced me to investigate this band’s music in greater detail because they just might be something very special. Because that hook was still dominantly running through my head the afternoon after I first heard Bridget and the Vikes, even though I had only heard it once (and had seen a heck of a good band perform after them, as well). There’s a bit of an Old West feel to “The Breakdown,” as I could see movie musical cowboys swaying to it while on a cattle driven,though perhaps it’s more Great Plains, as I’d more likely visualize a lonely farmer or two lamenting a life as it might have been while staring across their fields, with a soft wind blowing on the prairie.
Next up is “Rollaway,” an engaging, well-crafted, fun song driven by a rolling rhythm but punctuated by a tension-building run or two before release. It’s followed by a rendition of “Trouble Comes in the Threes,” the title track from Bridget and the VKs’ first EP. The catchy strumming pattern at the beginning draws the listener in, and it combines with a vocal that seems to whisper even though it doesn’t. Where “Rollaway” goes somewhere, “Trouble Comes…” just sits on its relatively slow-tempoed motor and let’s the listener enjoy.
The album cranks up only a very small notch with “Let Him Down,” and actually, with the motor being a bit more subtle, it almost feels like it has slowed down a touch. It’s probably the purest song on the CD that hits at the core of BD+VKs’ style, even if the band’s style seems to be all about straying from its center, rarely settling in. So it’s a nice job of song placement to have the album centered just in time for the next track, “Sarah’s Song,” which for me is the biggest potential breakout hit of the collection. It is the only song whose “motor” is a background vocal, one that’ll have the listener “oh”-ing along by halfway through. Comparatively speaking, the tempo is relatively faster than the others on the disc, the lyrics are interesting… and then the song throws this Chris Isaak-esque “Wicked Game”-ish guitar bridge to seal the deal. Um, yeah, “Sarah’s Song” is something special.
“I’m Ready” is a bit of a blend of the two previous tracks, with the eeriness of the slower parts of “Sarah’s Song” and the centeredness of “Let Him Down.” The song begins at a much slower tempo with muted instrumental flourishes, though it does build to power in a couple spots and end much noisier than it begins. I’ve seen “I’m Ready” mentioned as an album favorite in comments by some of Bridget’s core fans, which is evidence that, even as a band should strive for music that could attract new listeners (like “Sarah’s Song”) and to grow outward as musicians and songwriters, it’s important for a band to grow inward, to remember its center, to try to create variations on its central theme because that’s what its long-term followers love.
The last song on the CD is the title track, and it’s a bit of a slow, mellow, haunting bookend to the first track. Both guitar and percussion are the slow motors that move forward “I Wasn’t Planning on the End.” The whole song has a bit of a melancholy feel, ending where the album began, a bit mellow and unsure of the world around it, simultaneously definitive and uncertain. Very much Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings.
So yes, this band will never rock your face off or blow your mind with freakish feats of vocal or musical amazingness. But they consistently deliver good songs, vary the tempo, provide hook-type “motors” you’ll remember. If there’s a place in the world for a truly fine, song-driven band — and really, if we’re being honest, that’s at the core of most long-term success in the music business — you’ll find that right here.
Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings’ next performance is Saturday, December 5th at 10:00 pm on Stage 1 at the Rockwood Music Hall in New York. I’d be there if I could. I can’t, but if you can, you should go.