The first thing many listeners will notice about War Chief's new six-song "Broken Heart" EP is that it's a really great sounding record — it's warm and immediate, and tasteful production choices abound. There's nothing trendy or of-the-moment going on here. The next thing that will become apparent (and which one might surmise from the title) is that this record isn't about the happiest of times.
Aside from the last track, "Broken Heart of a Mindless Machine," all of these songs were written with a full band in mind and were penned "after some life changes," said founder and primary songwriter Grayson Shelton. "And looking back now, I told people I wrote it more about a time and place and not necessarily a situation anymore."
Opener "Wine-Darkened Sea" starts off melancholy before progressing to a defiant chorus and an uplifting finish. It recalls some of the less jammy tracks by The Chris Robinson Brotherhood. "Paper Tigers" is a standout, an understated, propulsive rumination that finds Shelton sifting through the ashes. "Victorians" is a sturdy rocker featuring searing guest lead guitar from Stephen Neeper. The EP's centerpiece is the dramatic "Rewind (30 Pieces)," which builds on pounding piano and drums and gently strummed guitars, working up the tension to a cathartic release on the chorus.
Shelton started in 2011 as a solo singer/songwriter, and recorded his first EP with a group of session players. War Chief — winner of this year's Arkansas Times Best of Arkansas for best band — has gone through some lineup changes in the last few months, evolving to what is now a quintet with Shelton and Preston Whittenburg on guitars, Chris Brummett on drums, Blake Lefler on keyboards and Alexander Jones on bass.
The band's previous release, the full-length "Love Letters from Prester John," had several songs dating from Shelton's solo days, but the songs on the new EP were written with a full band in mind. "All six of these songs are really big songs," Shelton said. It's "an album that would be harder to play by yourself."
The full-band sound has also influenced Shelton's songwriting process itself. "When I sit down and write I think about how we're sounding now and what I can apply to that or what direction we want to go next," he said. Too, every musician has different influences and instincts, and will bring a different sound to the same song.
"I think the changes also add to the fact that we have a pretty broad selection of music," Shelton said. "We've got some songs that are really rock 'n' roll, we've got some songs that are more blues based and we've got some songs that are more Americana/country based."
War Chief has played several dates outside of Central Arkansas, including spots at Wakarusa, and will likely aim for a short tour in the fall, most likely southwest to Texas or to the northeast up to New York. "We've gotten this to the point where we need to make a push and now we have something that's push-able and we have the lineup that is willing to make the push," Shelton said. "So from that point we are going to try to do something. There is some interest and the guys are champing at the bit."
War Chief plays a record-release show Friday night at Stickyz with Stephen Neeper & The Wild Hearts and Annalisa Nutt. It's an 18-and-older show, 9 p.m., $7.