This Way to the EGRESS, a Bethlehem, Pa. sextet, have released two singles off their new album, The Great Balancing Act, and listening to them back-to-back is a fascinating exercise in contrasts.
The first single, "We Won't Go," is a bouncy accordion-fueled jig with a blissfully melodic vocal harmony section about halfway through. The second, "Let's Not Pretend," is a chaotic, banjo-powered lurch, made all the grungier by singer Taylor Galassi's Tom-Waitsian growl and punctuated by a full-stop mid-song before the tune slowly accelerates again like some dying 1970s Sedan.
So there's a lot going on in this band's music, which is fitting for a six-piece group that features accordion, fiddle, glockenspiel, and a three-piece horn section, alongside the usual guitar and drums. "There are fluctuations in our songs, because we draw influence from life, and life fluctuates," says vocalist Sarah Brown, who also plays fiddle and keyboards. "It just kind of happens naturally with us. It's just how we've evolved as a group."
This Way to the EGRESS was formed by frontman and accordion player Taylor Galassi in 2008, and the group has spent most of the last seven years on the road, pausing briefly to record and self-release three EPs and two albums (2011's This Delicious Cabaret & 2013's Mighty Seed). Their sound is a kaleidoscope of woozy horns, backwoods grit, and barroom stories, exaggerated vocal personas, ragtime piano, and shifting time signatures. And up until recently, their music came across better live than on record.
To be fair, that disparity is partly because of how hard the band works live. On their website, the band describes their live show thusly: "Confetti snowstorms, tuba farts, Balinese chanting, fire-wielding evangelists, and puppets sweep across the stage creating a jubilant, anything-goes atmosphere." It's hard for an audience not to get swept up in a show that relies just as much on the visual as the musical, and Brown says that it's been difficult translating that energy to the studio.
'That's actually been a challenge for us throughout the years," Brown says of the transition. "When we first started out, we often heard, 'Man, their album's good, but you've got to see them live. They put on a crazy live show.'" To an extent, there's only so much you can do about that, because our live show isn't just about the music. It's about the connection between us and the audience. We create an overload of the senses, which you can't really do with an album."
The band found the solution while preparing to record The Great Balancing Act, both from inside and outside the group. "With this particular album, we made it a point to pump everything we had into it, to bring as much energy as we could from the stage into the studio," Brown says. "And the way we tried to harness that energy was that we just played and played and played the album together for months as a group before we got to the recording, from the first track to the last, and really just meditated on what the songs were, what they were written about, what they meant to the band. We were really lucky, too, because we had a great producer on this album (Roger Greenawalt), and I think he helped to capture some of the energy that we have live."
Given the free-for-all of the band's live show, it might seem like This Way to the EGRESS would take a similarly undisciplined approach to arranging their songs. But Brown says that there's order to the mayhem. "With that many pieces, the songs need to be heavily orchestrated or they could easily sound muddy," she says. "There would be no way for a song to come out of the chaos if we didn't do that."
Brown says the process begins with the words. "Normally what we do is Taylor will write a song and bring it to the band," she says. And then we'll all kind of sit with it and write parts and then we'll get into the same room and play it a bunch and then record it and listen to it and see what works and what doesn't and say, 'Where does it have to be so that the audience gets the best interpretation?'"
But despite all this hard work and rehearsal and orchestration, This Way to the EGRESS is still a band whose main tools are attitude and a sense of humor. "We're in an industry where it's very easy to become self-absorbed and take yourself too seriously," Brown says. "And that's because as an artist you spend a lot of time focused on your art. So we try really hard to stay grounded and remember that it isn't just our art — it's everybody's art. And even though we take our music very seriously, you have to have a sense of humor just like how you approach life, or the joke will be on you."