Considering his recent successes, it’s more than likely Frankie Broyles could have shopped his new EP Slow Return out to any number of labels. After all, before Omni started buzzing, Broyles rose to underground prominence with Balkans and played with Deerhunter for a brief stint. Yet, instead of looking beyond Atlanta, the guitarist and songwriter chose to work with Skeleton Realm. The local label, of which Omni drummer Doug Bleichner is a core member, has released some of Atlanta’s strongest pop in the past few years (Breathers, anyone?), while maintaining a quirky internet presence. It’s probable the decision to work with Skeleton Realm was one borne mostly out of convenience, but it still reflects Broyles’ continued connection to his hometown and his unassuming style.
To call Broyles an animated performer would be a bit of an overstatement. At live shows, his attention is reserved for his guitar rather than the audience, but what he lacks in stage presence, he more than makes up for with incandescent guitar compositions. His technical riffs and intricate chords are the heart and soul of Omni, but on Slow Return, he exhibits a broader set of skills. Throughout the seven-song EP, Broyles’ taps into the balance between clever instrumentation and gentle but assured vocals. Slow Return portrays an artist looking to step beyond the driving rock of Balkans into more effervescent territory, but it’s hard not to hear echoes of the group’s later material.
The underlying similarities to Balkans are evidence of the EP’s serpentine timeline. Broyles began sketching most of the instrumental tracks nearly two and half years ago, but “L. Bright,” “Shoulder Blade,” and the title track have existed in demo form since 2008. Nothing was off limits as the record came together. On a couple of songs, Broyles even rewrote vocals after completing the track. “I mixed, edited, rerecorded parts, made slight changes, recorded random overdubs periodically until December of 2016, just working on things when I had the time,” he explains. This willingness to embrace the shifting nature of creativity and time could have resulted in a disjointed collection of songs, but instead Slow Return benefits from the peculiar mix of impromptu decisions and methodical songwriting.
Throughout the EP, Broyles’ voice often fades in and out, leaving the listener hanging on wispy syllables as he becomes lost in thought. This ascendant style allows his voice to function as a conduit for his emotional fluctuations as much as lyrical wit, but it also centers the listening experience amidst the record’s frequent shifts of tone. On “Shoulder Blade,” Broyles toys with a blend of bedroom pop sounds, invoking a peculiar mix of Brian Wilson and Daniel Johnston. Then on “Shrine in the Rain,” he invokes the gold sounds of ’60s AM radio, complete with a tinkling piano outro lifted from deep in the Abbey Road archives. These bold dives into the history of pop are evidence of Broyles’ growth as a songwriter, but his voice, more than his guitar wizardry, is what ties Slow Return together and grounds it in the world of modern art pop.
Broyles may have embraced the studio as a laboratory throughout the writing process, but even compared to his more linear work with Balkans, Slow Return isn’t a purely experimental album. Instead, it’s better understood as the missing link — or more accurately a swath of missing links (some which go off in different directions altogether) — between Balkans and Omni. More importantly, it’s a record that recalls his previous work without clinging to bygone successes. Slow Return is a worthwhile record for fans of Broyles’ other projects, but it portrays a maturing artist, a songwriter able to mine the past and transform it into a triumphant musical vision.