Wilsen EP review x2: “Magnolia” EP/“Magnolia Remix” EP

by Eric Evans

There’s no reason why Wilsen couldn’t be huge. Like, Coldplay huge. Now hold on, I know what you’re thinking and that’s not what I mean. It’s not an insult, hear me out. Think back to when you first heard “Yellow”, Coldplay’s breakout single. It’s not a craven attempt to appeal to the masses, it’s a well-realized and well-crafted rock song. It’s sincere. There’s just a point at which a band’s sound transcends a specific genre and, given the right circumstances, can reach millions of people. Right now, that’s Wilsen.

Which is not to say Wilsen sat around in the studio trying to alchemize mass-market success. Their sound isn’t Max Martin pop or adult contemporary dreck. It’s essentially basic rock—two guitars, bass, and drums, seamlessly blended elements of dreamy shoegaze and ’70s folk-rock songcraft and prime Smiths melancholia. You wouldn’t call it blues but it’s bluesy, electric guitars with just the right twang juxtaposed with chiming acoustics. And above it all, right atop the mix where it belongs, Tamsin Wilsen’s rich, gorgeous voice. There’s never any urgency in her delivery and none of the songs feel rushed. Every word, every note on the Magnolia EP sounds well-considered.

The anthemic title track in particular reveals how well realized and clearly articulated the band’s sound is. Comparisons to 10,000 Maniacs might seem apt but don’t go quite far enough in crediting Wilsen’s musical dynamic.  The song—all the songs, really—have a depth that not only gives each instrument plenty of room but suggests that filling a stadium with sound might not be such a challenge. “Sea To Sea” has the kind of facepalm simplicity of the very best songwriting: it sounds vaguely familiar but in no way derivative. It’s just right, start to finish. “Go Try” begins like a quiet journal entry yet resolves itself in overlapped vocals and gentle spacerock guitar. Significantly, the vocals sound deeply personal but don’t hint at vulnerability. There’s gentleness but not weakness.

Each of the four tracks on the Magnolia EP complement one another perfectly. Taken as a whole, the collection announces Wilsen as a band with no ceiling and no downside, a group with a very clear idea of who they are and what they do. They could carve out a tidy niche in indie circles and play to small but passionate crowds for years, or they could break wide open and play stadiums like Muse or Coldplay. Neither would surprise me.

What is surprising is Wilsen’s Magnolia Remix EP, featuring the same 4 tracks re-imagined and restructured by a variety of musicians to sound very electronic. “Emperor” initially sounds unchanged until a good bit of Shep Pettibone-style percussion kicks in, joined by short vocal snippets at the chorus. The revised “Sea To Sea” recalls the sparse soundscapes of late-’80s Depeche Mode remixes. “Go Try” gets the full Kraftwerkian treatment, rebuilt as beeps and chirps and distorted robot vocals. It takes no small amount of confidence to trust your tracks to remixing this intensive. Very occasionally rock bands experiment with this sort of thing with varied results and it speaks well of Wilsen’s songwriting that the tracks, however sonically different, still resonate as theirs. The remix EP could convincingly stand well on its own (though I don’t know if it’s intended to do so). It is, however, wholeheartedly recommended as a companion to Magnolia proper.