CD Reviews 25 Jul 2019


(2019  Self-Release)

You can purchase In My Head here.

Family and career diversions are the chief culprits in the derailment of musical or other artistic ambitions. You don’t punch a clock to receive the inspiration for a song and your likelihood of earning anything are about the same as being unemployed. North Code founding members, singer/guitarist Josh Pankratz and percussionist Adam Prinson, met around 2016 and began to write songs. While both have degrees and careers they have put in a lot of time and are paying their dues as songwriters and performers. After testing the waters as a duo they added bassist Ben Strohbeen and keyboardist/mandolinist Craig Hoffman. Recently violinist Rin Q Ribble joined. In 2018 they released a six track, self-titled EP, which can be found here. In My Head is their first full-length and was self-recorded with mastering done by Justin Perkins at Milwaukee’s Mystery Room Mastering.

Alternative folk, or indie-folk, or whatever label you want to give to acoustic guitar-based singer/songwriters and groups is everywhere today, bolstered by home recording technology that allows DIY projects like the North Code to flourish. Mumford and Sons and the Lumineers have inspired many a singer/songwriter to create the folk ensemble that can remain introspective; not dominated by a heavy rhythm section. The North Code has a genuine likeability, an honesty about them that is endearing. While they may resemble the Lumineers’ sound – persistent bass drum sounds driving the rhythm, for example – they do show signs of branching out into their own space.

The addition of Ribble on violin gives them a big push in that direction, an element they can call their own and differentiating them from other local groups occupying similar territory, such as the Mascot Theory. Hoffmann broadens the palette with keyboards and organ but it’s the mandolin that works in combination with the acoustic guitar and violin that produces that ancient world sound, Irish folk music overtones, perhaps. Pankratz tosses off some nice flourishes on acoustic guitar that occasionally differentiate from the strummy sound common in this style of music. Studio recording presents the opportunity to fill the guitar pocket with some electric rhythm guitar.

Vocals and lyrics are the North Code’s strong suit. Pankratz is a very capable singer, smooth delivery, pleasing timbre – he can hit that vocal sweet spot. The harmony vocals are strong as well, delivering the emotionally-charged lyrics with panache.

The lyrics are rife with personal conflict and a yearning to understand the human condition. Personal pronouns abound. One of the album’s standouts is “Not My Fault,” a minor-key ballad that sees the bass taking the melody in places. One stanza here rather sums up where the North Code is coming from: “It’s not my fault, this is my condition / No return to that place before / There’ll be no getting sober now / Cuz inside, there lies a war…And oh, we hold out for better times / And oh, we just don’t know what we’ll find.” The album’s last track, “Before,” explores similar territory and the struggle with vice runs throughout the lyrics. “Secrets” is another strong offering, the rhythm section beefier, the uplifting lilt juxtaposed with the striving lyrics.

Though the North Code may be relying on convention, their challenge now is in expanding their elements, stretching from familiar chords and key signatures. Joni Mitchell once said that, “If you remove the demons the angels also fly away.” The challenge of moving from songwriting to artistry relies on taking the personal struggle and making it universal or, conversely taking a universal struggle and condensing it down to the struggle of the individual.

For a DIY recording, In My Head is remarkably refined. It’s well-recorded and those skills are a big plus in the needle-in-a-haystack world that is the current musical environment. And, if there is one thing about the North Code, they sound great live – able to reproduce the harmonies and use the immediacy of the live setting to propel the sentiment of the songs. These things they seem to have down and that is a lot from which to expound.

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About the author

Rick Tvedt

Rick is publisher of Local Sounds Magazine, formerly Rick's Cafe, Wisconsin's Regional Music Newspaper. He is also the Executive Director for MAMA, Inc., a non-profit organization that produces the Madison Area Music Awards and raises funds to promote youth music programs.

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