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Album Review: William Ryan Key ‘Virtue’

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Virtue: behavior showing high moral standards. William Ryan Key‘s Virtue album: auditory collection showing high musical standards.

The six track EP, Virtue will be released via Lone Tree Recordings on Nov.30, following the release of his debut solo EP Thirteen in May. This follow-up shows growth, adding layers that the first acoustic, stripped-down release didn’t exhibit.

The first track, “The Same Destination” unveils Virtue as a soft, melancholic feel — less high-octane, shredding violins (that Yellowcard fans grew fond of), more contemplative lyrics and a sense of growing older; more introspective. Being a piano-driven instrumental track, it still manages to set the stage for the rest of the record.

“Mortar and Stone” is the first chapter, introducing Key’s characters, and one of many New York references.

The first EP was a stripped back, strumalong album, and this one definitely is it’s grown-up sibling. It’s more complex, a few more layers, a few more scars — yet the bones are still there; the delicate, honestly vulnerable bones.

“With Virtue, I wanted to explore and expand on the sound I’ve discovered both musically and lyrically,” he says. “Similar to my first release, all of the songs came together in such a spontaneous manner. The recording sessions were very much driven by capturing what felt right in the moment, and moving on to the next idea.”

The third track, “The Bowery” revisits Key’s uncertainty and second-guessing on new beginnings.

I don’t shine like the others do/I’m so close and so far/ From the light you see them standing in. I’ll come running if you tell me to/ Upstate/ I’m too late.

The track continues with what sounds like a percussion layer, creating a fuller sound than we’ve heard so far. The story deepens, and the listener becomes more aware of an uncertainty — perhaps a lack of self-confidence, but surely not a lack of self-awareness.

Who do I think I am/Rushing in/Where I can’t win/And I am always/Crumbling beneath this heavy weight

The title track, “Virtue” clocks in at 5:09, but is actually not the longest track on the EP. The song tells about finding comfort in a voice — the same which can be said from fans of Yellowcard. Even if the package being delivered is starkly contrasted from the early electric pop punk days, the familiarity of Key’s vocals brings comfort. Many things have changed since we first heard Key’s sunny ode to California’s “Ocean Avenue” fifteen years ago, including Key.

Choose my words/With a clouded mind tonight/Guard the doorway to the truth/My virtue lives with you

The song ends with a unique spoken word excerpt in a different language. Although I’m not sure what it’s saying, it doesn’t come across as eery — but rather uplifting. That said, I’m waiting for someone to google it and call me out on that previous observation.

“Downtown” begins with acoustic strums and Key’s storytelling songwriting style up front-and-center. His calming vocals relay the classic dilemna: should I stay or should I go.

I’ll be waiting downtown hoping you’ll do me in/ Sirens singing with me while I lose you again

I may be tired of these years lost in love/ But I’ll be waiting downtown/ While you leave just enough/ Leave to(o) much more/ And I’ll stay up north.

Is Key singing about someone leaving onto better things? Or warning someone if they leave too many times, he’ll stay farther away? Either way — it’s a toughie, and you feel the tension build.

“Working on ‘Downtown (Up North)’ was one of the coolest experiences of my musical career,” he stated in a press release. “For many years now the music I listen to the most has been post rock and instrumental. One of my favorite and most influential artists is Hammock. I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Marc Byrd, one of the founding members, since I’ve moved to Franklin, TN. When I started writing for Virtue and had the demo for ‘Downtown’, I sent it to Marc and asked if he’d be interested in producing some cello for the song. I ended up getting to work with him and Hammock’s cellist, Matt Slocum [Sixpence None the Richer] on the track. I feel so lucky to get to work and collaborate with artists that inspire me. “

Vocals are a bit varied on the final track, “No More No Less,” which sees a bit of distortion for the first time on the EP. It feels like a closing track, with momentum building from the previous songs, finally ready to explode. Melodic, post-hardcore influences rear their head here, and it’s a rather fitting ending to an album that’s shown it’s little sibling just how much it’s grown up in a short six months.

Am I gonna survive when I’m out in the wild, am I gonna belong? /Am I gonna behave, am I looking to stay when a reckoning comes?

Despite the dissolval of a familiar band, Key proves on Virtue he’s retained a longstanding voice — this time within a somewhat uncharted musical landscape.

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Sarah Spohn

Sarah's a little bit of a rock 'n' roll rebel, almost always at a concert. She loves to soak up the scene, immersed in the music journalism world, still buys CDs and rents music documentaries from the library. Just don't call her a hipster. She's never been that stylish.

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