Villa go for gentle-rock

Just in time for winter: Villa
courtesy of the artists

Instead of rocking socks off, Villa would rather light a fire to warm listeners' feet. The local quintet's full-length debut, Plains, Fog, Cold and Snow, makes for a welcome balm before the crush of another sure-to-be-cruel Minnesota winter. Its 10 tracks are lightly rolling mid-tempo indie-pop gems powered by warm vintage keyboard sounds, hypnotic guitar arpeggios, and heaps of three-part harmonies.

Villa came to life three years ago when identical twin brothers Mike (guitar) and Nick (keyboards) Hoolihan began feeling the itch to add vocals to their melodic arsenal after years spent as the driving force in instrumental outfit Switzerlind.

"Nick and I always wrote music together but it wasn't until we brought [guitarist Tony Newes] in that it evolved into something new," offers Mike Hoolihan, 28, flanked by his brother, Newes, and the rhythm section of Paul Nevins (drums) and Mike Brown (bass) at a St. Paul bar on a late October Tuesday evening. "He was adding all of these vocal ideas and harmonies to our instrumental ideas and that helped jump-start us doing our own singing."

Even as they added vocals to their sound, however, Villa retained the ambient-leaning sensibility and preference for subtlety the Hoolihan brothers honed in Swizterlind.

"We definitely consciously talked about using the voice as just another instrument since we were coming from that background," offers Nick. "It was refreshing and exciting adding vocals to our ideas, and we learned pretty really quickly how challenging that could be."

None of the growing pains are evident on Plains, Fog, Cold and Snow, recorded live at the start of the year with engineer Neil Weir at Old Blackberry Way studios after plenty of pre-recording wood-shedding.

"When we first started working together it was all just glorious," jokes Newes, 32, previously best known for collaborating with Brother Ali's DJ BK-One. "But then when we got into the thick of actually working out the songs it was hard. We've had to huddle around together acoustically to figure out the exact harmonies for both recordings and live performance just so we don't get lost."

With the kinks fully worked out by the time they hit record, Villa set about making a gentle yet impactful first impression. All three songwriters have distinctive styles and voices, with Newes's material the most instantly accessible thanks to his forceful, clear-as-a-bell tenor, plus a penchant for early-Shins-styled balladry. ("Keeping Off the Road" would shine on any Oh, Inverted World-inspired playlist.)

Though each songwriter has his own shining moments — for Nick Hoolihan, it's the bouncy "Fool," and for Mike the album-closing lullaby "Maritime Blues" — the album's high points are also very democratic. Group-sung and -written tunes like "Golden" and "Modern Times" are simultaneously atmospheric and anthemic, and Villa wouldn't have it any other way.

"What's cool about the way the band works now is that I'm almost more excited when I just have a piece of an idea for a song," asserts Mike. "Because I know I can bring it to the rest of the guys and they can turn it into something."

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