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The future is already starting, at least a little bit. An EP is out on Summer Break: The five-song Plays for Lovers is a slice of what the band dreams up in rehearsals each week--it's a sound somewhere between a low pop growl and a friendly twang. Johnson is responsible for the songs' inceptions, but "then the rest of us change them up till they're unrecognizable," Balis says, laughing.
Johnson's vocals, raspy and earnest but anchored in the land of tenor, give the band's sound some flexible cohesion, and Balis' clear harmonies evoke the nostalgia of No Depression. But song for song, Albrecht has the swing vote; his keyboard sets each song's subtle undercurrent, from an Attractions stomp to a Gainsbourgian cabaret, from sweeping grand piano to feel-good plinking.
And while the band plays with moods, it's within an American indie scope: "Alcohol Drip" is a surprisingly clean anthem to booze and forgetting, while the looser, more soulful "It's a Sign" is more resignedly Westerberg. "Bye Bye" notches things over to staccato rock guitar, and the bluegrassy "Now and Then" comes off like a lost track from Wilco's A.M. It's an impressive debut, given its spontaneity.
"Some of those songs we hadn't even really rehearsed before we recorded them," Johnson points out. "I don't think any of them are very old." And that's just this first, modest EP, a recording of what roads the band might take before it even knows where it's going. Judging by that Thursday night at the Liquid Lounge, the live set is like putting a sound in an oven and letting it bake and swell into something more epic. The musicians in the audience absorbed it with pleased familiarity; they hang out at Barley House; they know Sorta's back story. But the uninitiated walking in off the street would think they were watching old hands on home ground. Nice going for a band that hasn't celebrated its first birthday.