Stairwell, The Sounds of Change (Hopeless/SubCity)

It may require more than a couple of listens for Stairwell to seep into your brain. The reason being that bands with carefully interconnected guitar lines and even-tempered vocals have been cursed by the countless, faceless mediocre purveyors of such rock. When a band gets it right (as Stairwell do over and over), one may be immediately skeptical that they can do it again. Amazingly, Stairwell never miss through The Sounds of Change’s ten tracks.

You can tell a lot about an album by its first song. Here, “Disaster” may immediately call to mind the too-clever complexity of arpeggio-happy emo/math rock bands, but Stairwell’s tasteful use of space and catchy (yet never predictable) vocals give us a glimpse of a band who uses its cleverness for good, not evil. “Boxcar” starts with chunky but never messy guitars and breaks into math-rock-esque riffing before seamlessly introducing incredibly catchy high vocal harmonies.

The last three songs are the most up-tempo on the record. “Perfect Weather” highlights Jonathan Caro and Zak Shultz’s brilliantly traded and harmonized vocals. Their guitars play off each other just as tunefully. “Familiar Streets” offers the first real big riffing of the record but naturally Stairwell don’t misplace their good sense — the catchy chorus is bolstered by background vocals that ring in your ears. “Champion Weekend” which closes the album builds the verse an instrument at a time until the breezy chorus kicks in: “It’s a champion weekend for us to win.”

The frustrating complexity of so many recent indie bands is enough to dismay lovers of smart, underground music. Thankfully, Stairwell are diligently surprising the cynics. The Sounds of Change is a truly satisfying record which grows with each listening and proves you can make crafty, high-quality recordings and not lose your cool.

–TA