I haven't been writing much lately so when my friend Tyler asked me to write a review for his upcoming album, What We Say We Are, I was incredibly honored and humbled. It seemed an obvious answer. Of course! Plus, then I would get to listen to the album before it was actually released. #alernativemotives
It was wonderful to fully immerse myself in the album, learning more about Tyler and his music capabilities. This is a wonderful album and I highly recommend you check it out. Not just because I know Tyler. Or because I wrote a review on it. But simply because it's good music. You can download his pre-released single at Noisetrade or pre-order the full album at his Bandcamp.
What We Say We Are is the freshman album from Tyler Sjostrom, a singer and songwriter hailing from Chicagoland. With a voice that resembles Nathaniel Rateliff* and the picking skills to boot, this album has been a long time coming for fans of Sjostrom. It was worth the wait.
The album is a unique effort, perhaps because it is highly influenced by Sjostrom’s life and experience, which has remarkable variety and distinctiveness. Sjostrom capitalizes on this in a way that can only be commended. Yet, in no way does the album hurt in its cohesiveness. Themes of self-discovery, desire for authenticity, and an appreciation of natural aesthetic are laced throughout, and while Sjostrom allows his songs to bring you alongside his many adventures and musings, he also causes you to pause and notice your own life.
The musicality of What We Say We Are is what is perhaps most striking. It is truly a broad and comprehensive effort for any musician, let alone someone who is writing their first album. And knowing Sjostrom’s affinity for folk music, it is impressive to hear him work within other genres and instrumentation. Don’t be fooled, though. This album is an undeniable tribute to folk; Sjostrom’s banjo and guitar picking consistently, and rightfully, earn a decided place throughout his album. But from the electric guitar solo in Let Them to the beautiful and sweeping string quartet of Hands and Knees, the different elements and details brought forth in this album are a welcomed addition to Sjostrom’s picking. Thankfully, though, there are still moments where a solo or riff effortlessly dance their way to the forefront of a song and his inherent skill on these instruments truly sings.
The album opens with Red River, an ode to Sjostrom’s deep love for the Red River Gorge in Eastern Kentucky. It was also, appropriately, the pre-released single and provides a good musical introduction to the album as a whole. There is a certain backwoods quality about the song, a harkening back to the space where folk music draws its roots. This feel is carried throughout the entirety of What We Say We Are and is the perfect compliment to Sjostrom’s lyric writing.
Hammock, the next track, is a slightly different taste from the rest of the album, but still one to be noticed and appreciated; it’s the music that truly shines in this song. From there, though, the album opens up and showcases Sjostrom’s natural knack for music writing. While his lyrics lean heavily on his own experiences, which can provide for some disconnect, there is a certain authenticity to them that is refreshing. In Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Sjostrom chooses to explore the struggle we can all feel: discovering a desire to be fully ourselves while simultaneously recognizing the deep and often allusive courage needed to be such. And the juxtaposition of music and lyric in Brother is fantastic. While the feet stomping, straight-out-of-the-English-countryside beat resembles what you would hear throwing back whiskey in a pub, the song actually speaks to Sjostrom’s experience in East Africa and challenges us all to remember the intentionality we need to truly be what we say we are.
The final three songs return back to Sjostrom’s love for and origins in folk music, reminding us once again of the woodland roots that are a consistent influence in his writing. Hands and Knees opens with a beautiful guitar solo and is then complimented by the banjo. What more can you want? And the powerful music throughout Let Them strengthens a heartfelt cry for authenticity in a culture lacking. Both songs also have subtle hints of classic rock and bring to mind the likes of Ryan Adams or the later works of Mumford and Sons. The climax of the album comes with the final song, Rescind My Fear, which acts as a sort of final gluing, marrying the album’s musical and lyrical themes for one last glimpse of Sjostrom’s heart. Truly, these songs are Sjostrom’s time to shine. And shine he does.
Sjostrom puts forth an admirable first effort with What We Say We Are, so much so that it is easy to forget this his first time around these parts. With this album, you are granted a certain privilege to gander through life and its musings with Sjostrom. Knowing Sjostrom, and this album, you won’t be disappointed.
Be sure to download his pre-realeased single and don't forget to pre-order the full length album here!
*For real, though. The resemblance is uncanny. It’s no surprise, then, that the album has some Rateliff influences. However, it’s definitely a Rateliff feel infused with much more hope and a lot less breaking up.