Single Review: Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings – “Highways”

Bridget Davis & the Viking Kings – "Highways"

image courtesy of Bridget Davis

Single Review of Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings: “Highways”

We at the Blog are big fans of the unique, original, memorable style of Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings. They have an easily identifiable, pleasant, rolling, laid-back Americana style but with a constantly-present, persistent rhythm that varies from song to song yet makes even the most mellow song seem energized. Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings are the perpetual motion machine of Americana. And their songwriting and delivery style is such that, if you heard them on the radio, you’d say to yourself, “Self, it’s Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings.”

Well, it has been a while since BD and the VKs graced our headphones with something new, nearly five and a half years between I Wasn’t Planning on the End and the new single “Highways,” released earlier this year. In all that time, the band hasn’t missed a beat.

Bridget Davis & the Viking Kings

photo courtesy of Bridget Davis

Opening with a warm texture and bass-guitar interplay (cool to listen to on headphones, since they reside in different ears), “Highways” utilizes many of the ingenuities in the band’s familiar, favorite bag of tricks to support Bridget’s soft, sweet, yet surprisingly dynamic vocal style. Those familiar with the band’s previous work will find the tempo most similar to that of “Transient,” as “Highways” differs from much of the band’s song catalog in that it’s actually as slow-tempoed as its music makes it seem, though it’s sonically more kindred to the faster-paced “Elizabeth” or the slower-paced “I Wasn’t Planning on the End.”

In the end, “Highways” is a welcome reintroduction to Bridget Davis and the Vikings Kings’ easily recognizable, original, trademark sound. If you’re unfamiliar with the band, let this be your introduction. There’s a hint of folk styling and country-leaning Americana energy in Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings’ music, an energy built on and originality, tempo, detailed songwriting, and deliberate performance structure that will appeal to a broad swath of musical tastes. To the band: Welcome back to our playlists. We’ve missed you.

Looking Back

Those who have been with us here at the Blog from the beginning will remember our other two Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings reviews. First, I reviewed one of their live Rockwood Music Hall shows as item #8 in my 9-part “Road Back to Music Journalism” series, in which I chronicled events that led me back to writing – and starting this blog – after a dozen years away. A few weeks later, I reviewed their album I Wasn’t Planning on the End. So if my review of this song interests you, be sure to check out the other words I’ve written about this talented ensemble.

Looking Ahead

Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings hinted in this Facebook post this spring and confirmed with me just recently via e-mail that there is more music coming; “Highways” was just one of several songs recorded live at the Figure 8 Recording studio in Brooklyn. They’ll likely be released one at a time in advance of an eventual EP release. Whether the songs are released individually or all at once, we can’t wait to hear them!

Album Review: Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings – I Wasn’t Planning on the End

Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings  –  I Wasn’t Planning on the End

Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings

photo by Larufoto; photo courtesy of Bridget Davis

The Backstory

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.

CD Review of Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings: I Wasn’t Planning on the End

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.

Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings

artwork by Cassie Kelly; image courtesy of Bridget Davis

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.

Bridget Davis

photo by Larufoto; photo courtesy of Bridget Davis

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.

Looking Ahead

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.

The Road Back #8: Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings

The Road Back to Music Journalism #8: Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings at Rockwood Music Hall

Spring 2015

Discovering a New Band at a Bar

Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings

photo by Larufoto; photo courtesy of Bridget Davis

The Backstory

I was spending a weekend in New York, and the friend with whom I was having dinner on Saturday evening suggested catching a few sets at Rockwood Music Hall. We arrived mid-set for one group and stayed for two more. The second of the three groups that evening was Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings. Between sets, I found myself standing next to Bridget and struck up a conversation, complimenting her on the band and offering a couple thoughts I had during the set. Even in the decade-plus away from music journalism, I still always examined the music I listened to; I wrote reviews in my head whenever I was at a show or spinning a new CD. And even with all those years away, I still felt compelled to share what I thought, particularly with the musicians themselves. I, of course, was able to quickly share my background, and that has been enough both online and in person to get the attention and appreciation of the musicians with whom I share my thoughts. I enjoy this part of being involved in the music business. And that night in June was no different.

Why This Was a Step on the Road Back

It’s one thing to share thoughts and exchange notes online, but it’s quite another to do it in person. This is what I used to love so much about being a music magazine publisher. Of course, in that moment, I merely signed up for Bridget’s mailing list and planned to look more closely into the music when I got home. But that night, combined with all of the previous steps on the road back (and indeed I had started to consider the thought of a return), was the event that cemented my decision to finally launch this blog. The decision didn’t exactly come immediately. In a sense it did, but it took a few more weeks for me to convince myself. For the launch date, I picked out a week in late October, a time when I would have some vacation days, as a good time to get the blog started with a complete set of informational pages and a flurry of posts. As you can see, that’s what I’ve done. So, even though it wasn’t immediate, step #8 was essentially the last step on my road back. (But yes, there will be a step #9 article. One more thing happened that would have sealed the deal, if it had been necessary, and it certainly convinced me not to reverse course on my decision. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)

Live Review: Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings at Rockwood Music Hall

June 13, 2015

Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings

photo by Geoff Wilbur

First of all, apologies for the blurry photo. I bumped a setting on my camera during the evening but didn’t realize it until later that night. But you can sort of make out Bridget and her bandmates in the picture, can’t you? OK, then let’s start the review.

Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings songs’ have what I refer to, for lack of a better phrase, as “engines” – those often-song-long rhythmic hooks that seem to be BD+VKs’ signature (sometimes a bass line, sometimes a guitar line, occasionally drum-based, once in a while even vocal) are the band’s strength, what sets them apart from other bands in their genre. Bridget has great vocals, of course, but I think their songs (not just the songs themselves but their unique songwriting style, namely their songs’ “motors” or “engines” – yes, I can’t decide which word is more descriptive) are their real advantage.

Indeed, when I sought out Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings’ music after the show, I started with the most recent EP, January. And I instantly recognized the songs that had drawn me in during the live show, “The Breakdown” – I easily that song’s “motor” from a couple days earlier – and “January.” Also, perhaps “Jonas,” though I didn’t take any notes at the show, so I can’t be sure. But if you want an introduction to the band’s music, there is no better introduction than “The Breakdown.” The song is one long hook, with a pulsing acoustic rhythm you’ll be hearing long after the song is done and vocals that rise and fall perfectly with the melody and as called for in the lyrics.

As a whole, the folk-rock style embodied by Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings – a sort of alt-rock folk with a pinch of Americana – tends to be song-driven rather than vocalist-driven. And while Bridget’s voice is sweet and clear with an odd waver when called for (well-suited to, perhaps, a Chris Isaak style tune), it’s not the band’s calling card. In fact, it’s just a part. It’s the songwriting, notably the hooks (or “motors”), that define BD & the VKs. This is a band whose music – as expressed through its well-crafted songs – is the reason you can identify the artist so easily when you hear the songs. And I give the group immense credit for forging its own path; I’ve heard so much folk-rock and Americana that just sits on the record sounding pretty but doesn’t distinguish itself. That’s why I’m so high on Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings, a strong band with catchy songs… and a unique sound in a genre in which it’s hard to sound unique.

Looking Ahead

Actually, this is looking ahead to a future article but looking back for the band. About a month ago, Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings released a full-length album, I Wasn’t Planning on the End. My commitment to buy that album when it was released was the last financial musical commitment I made before deciding to return to writing. About a month ago, on the day it was released, I purchased the album. You can look forward to a review of it in the next few weeks. Spoiler alert: I was not disappointed.