Last year John Joseph Brill released his debut EP Pieces and quickly won over critics and crowds alike with his intense and intimate sound, fronted by his oft-called “brandy-warm” vocals. Not one to take a break, this year sees numerous festival performances and the release of follow up EP False Names. Despite the title, the EP is one of honest reflection, looking back with critical hindsight at a favourite getaway, nights out with raucous friends, the naivety of youthful idealism and relying on friends when life takes a wrong turn.
Playing to his strengths, the focus of the record stays fixed on Brill’s voice, with the instrumentation mostly remaining minimal and complimentary. Occasionally this results in songs feeling bare instead of supportive, with the strongest tracks being those with a bigger backing from the band. The Grape and the Grain delivers the most balanced backing, with clean guitar dancing around the vocal melody, content to play with harmonies without distracting.
Kings is the most outreaching track on the record. As it progresses, it sheds its folk elements and chases a rockier tone, channelling the Editors until an uncharacteristically raw but welcome guitar riff shakes things up. The rest of the EP does fall victim to the power of this track though, demanding either another powerful song for a final track, or less ambitiously, placing Kings in that final slot.
His vocal delivery in We Won’t Cry falls somewhere between singing and a croaky, restrained confession that is particularly powerful. It feels like a slower, crooned alternative to some of Frank Turner’s stuff – addictively clashing blasts of intimate confession against shout-sang vocals.
False Names is the EP’s feel good anthem, honouring those friends who hurt your liver to heal your spirits. A mix of playful lyrics with great rhythm lay over upbeat and excited drums, building quickly to a powerful finale. Being the first track it does set you up with a false sense of what the record is about though, as the rest of the album thematically shifts to a sombre tone and rarely lightens again.
If you know of Brill’s troublesome health, the album’s choice of subject matters can actually seem quite dark. Looking back at holidays and nights out is put in a darker light by the references throughout the EP to the singer’s struggle with illness and lines like “Time came and he took without saying he’d be back for more” on Kings push the record further into that dark place. Ultimately though, those warm vocals and powerful choruses uplift the album enough to allow it to be honest, without being depressing.
False Names is chapter two of a story that will undoubtedly end up an epic novel, however John Joseph Brill could do with focusing on the positive for a few songs to round out those future gigs and releases.