For a little more than two decades, Kalamazoo, MI-based indie rock act Willamena has made quite a name for itself in the music industry, releasing five studio recordings in that time, doing it all on its own no less. That diy approach, coupled with songs that are just as marketable as those from more well-known acts to whom its works can be compared, has helped the band’s fan base continue to grow. The release this past June of the band’s sixth studio recording, its aptly titled six-song EP Strong Enough to Last has undoubtedly served to build the band’s fan base and reputation even more. The songs featured in this 24-minute record will appeal to a wide range of fans, including fans of Goo Goo Dolls, Matchbox 20, Counting Crows and other similar acts. This applies both musically and lyrically. All things considered, this latest effort from what is – in this critic’s ears – one of the music industry’s best kept secrets is more proof that the indie music industry has just as much to offer audiences if not more.
Veteran indie rock outfit Willamena’s new EP Strong Enough to Last is an aptly titled record that clearly proves the underground music community has just as much to offer audiences today if not more. That statement is supported right from the record’s outset in the form of ‘As Long As I Can.’ Musically speaking, the song bears a clear Goo Goo Dolls influence. Intentional or not, that similarity is undeniable, and is not necessarily a good thing considering Goo Goo Dolls’ status in the mainstream. Lyrically speaking, it offers just as much to like. Guitarist and principal songwriter Chad Hendrickson writes in this song, “I grew up running/Away from the shadows//Darkness was always close to me/I saw tomorrow as the reason I was trying/I’d rather run to the day/Than hide from the night/Everyone gets tired/And I know that I’m no Superman/And I’m gonna run/As long as I can/As long as I can.” He goes on to write in the song’s second verse, “Maybe I’m desperate/Maybe I’m just a fool/My happiness never seems real to me/But I could always dream/And that’s enough, you see/Cause I’d rather reach for my dreams/Than feel empty inside/And I know that I’m no Superman/And I’m gonna run/As long as I can.” These two verses make up the song’s main lyrical body, and also make up quite a positive message in the process. In the simplest terms possible, Hendrickson is writing about having a certain drive and determination no matter what. It goes without saying that such a message is wholly welcome and needed nowadays for so many people. When it is coupled with the song’s equally upbeat musical arrangement, the end result becomes a solid first impression for the band on this EP and even more proof of why this record in whole is another solid effort from Willamena. It is not the only song to support those statements, either. ‘Darkest Before The Dawn,’ which comes later in the EP’s run, supports those statements just as much as the record’s opener.
‘Darkest Before The Dawn,’ musically will appeal to Matchbox 20 fans thanks to its gentle, flowing, instantly radio ready pop rock arrangement, which is highlighted by the pairing of its guitars and vocalist Lukas Ross’ delivery. That moving arrangement, is only one part of what makes this song stand out. Its lyrical content is just as important to note. Ross presents another positive message here as he sings, “I hope what I heard is true/It’s darkest before the dawn/Cause I don’t know how much longer I can just sit back/And hold on/Well I’ve been down before/But never quite like this/Life seems to have just slipped away/And this midnight feels endless/It’s tough out here/It’s cold when you’re alone/It’s tough out here/I know it’s darkest before the dawn/It’s darkest/Darkest before the dawn/Here comes the sun and the rain’s moving on/It’s darkest before the dawn.” That verse alone supports the interpretation of the song’s positive message, especially in its final lines in which Ross sings “Here comes the sun and the rain’s moving in.” That is another way – seemingly – of saying life will not always be negative. The song’s second verse hints at that positive message just as much, as Ross sings, “If the early bird gets the worm/Then I’d have been full by now/I keep trying despite the odds that have been holding me down/But I’m gonna climb that wall/I ain’t gonna stop/I’m gonna feel the light on my face when I make it to the top/It’s tough out here/It’s cold when you’re alone/It’s tough out here/I know it’s darkest before the dawn/It’s darkest/Darkest before the dawn/Here comes the sun and the pain’s moving on/It’s darkest before the dawn/I remember when I dreamed of the sun as it shined on a perfect day/Now there’s a darkness to the edge of the night that takes my breath away/Now I pray for the light/I pray for the light/I pray for the light/To shine on me.” There is no doubt that this is a message of hope and determination. Again, any time a band, act, etc. can present such a positive, uplifting message to its listeners, it is a good thing. When that positive message is coupled with an equally radio friendly musical arrangement, the whole of the song proves why the song is such an important addition to its record. It shows even more, along with the record’s opener, why the EP is so enjoyable, and is still not the last of the songs that prove the EPs strength. ‘Close Your Eyes,’ the EP’s second (and third – the EP actually includes two takes of the song) work is one more example of what makes Strong Enough to Last such a strong new effort from Willamena.
‘Close Your Eyes’ stands out musically thanks to a guitar line in its verses that bears a striking similarity to that of U2’s classic hit ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’ and a chorus that is more akin to so many radio friendly 90s mainstream rock hits. The choruses are infectious and will stick easily in listeners’ minds long after the song ends. Lyrically, it is just as interesting thanks to yet another positive message presented in its verses. Ross sings in the song’s lead verse, “Night/Follows the setting sun/And the stars come out/When the day is done/Dreams/Only come when your eyes are closed/When you can shut out the world/Shut out that cold/I’m drowning from the weight of my dreams/Spent too much time running away from too many things/Cause I dream/As much as I can/When you close your eyes/You can see everything/You can close your eyes/Close your eyes and dream/When you close your eyes/You can do anything/When you close your eyes/Close your eyes and dream/Cause you can dream about anything/When you close your eyes.” Ross goes on to sing in the song’s second verse, “The wind/blows through her hair/But to me/She was already there/The day/Chases the stars/Now when I walk around I know/They’re not very far away/I’m drowning from the weight of my dreams/Spent too much time running away from too many things/Cause I dream/As much as I can.” These two verses come across seemingly about the power of actual dreams during sleep to be motivators for metaphorical dreams; those desires that one wants in real life. That is inferred as Ross sings, “You can dream about anything when you close your eyes.” The suggestion that the song’s subject “spent too much time running away from everything” would seem to hint at that inference about the power of dreams both literal and metaphorical, and their importance. Whether that is truly the message or not, it goes without saying that the song is meant to be positive. That positive message, coupled with the song’s catchy musical arrangement makes this song stand out just as much as its counterparts and in turn show once more what makes Willamena’s new EP so strong. When it is set alongside the record’s other noted songs, and the two Tom Petty-esque pieces that round out the EP (its fifth and sixth songs), the whole of the record’s songs shows without doubt just how strong this record is. They show collectively why Willamena, despite being just under that mainstream radar for more than 20 years, is itself in fact strong enough to last.
Willamena’s latest studio recording is not the band’s first effort. The band’s sixth studio recording, it is another offering that proves why this band is still strong enough to last in itself. That is due to six separate radio ready musical arrangements that are certain to entertain audiences. The songs’ lyrical content is just as certain to entertain and engage audiences. All things considered, Strong Enough to Last proves that even after a little more than 20 years Willamena is itself still strong enough to last and that the record itself is easily one of this year’s top new EPs. It is available now. More information on Strong Enough to Last is available online now along with all of the band’s latest news and more at:
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