If you follow Milwaukee music and the name Justin Heron doesn’t mean anything to you, don’t feel too bad. After all, save for lending stage support to atlatl and Sulek shows or playing the occasional Linneman’s or Circle-A supporting solo slot, the Milwaukee-by-way-of-Memphis songwriter has kept fairly quiet, electing instead to ply his expertise behind the glass as a producer on such noted local releases as Sulek’s encouraging 2011 album Unbound At Last.
That’s not to suggest Heron puts his own music on the back burner. Last June, he told us he shortened and delayed his debut release because he wasn’t satisfied with six of the 11 songs he’d recorded. The remnants of that – the days old The Justin Heron EP – bear the fruits of the namesake’s meticulous attention to detail with five carefully crafted and expertly arranged songs.
An uncharacteristically loud opening barrage of percussion and electric guitar of “Lay Me Down” sets The Justin Heron EP bounding out the gates, only for the song to ease into subdued folk realm that the EP occupies for much the next four songs. As the opener continues, Heron’s building bellows of “Lay me down, lay me down to sleep” and clean acoustic strumming are backed by drums and subtle accompaniment of string instruments.
The strings – specifically Kristina Priceman’s violin and cello work from Sulek’s Patrick Hoctor – up the ante in should-be single “Rag Doll,” as they cushion the sharp corners of Heron’s earnest lyrics and cutting melodies. Recorded in the chapel of The Newman Center at UW-Milwaukee, the EP totes an aura of clean simplicity – no doubt thanks to Heron’s production values. Sometimes, though, those same values (read: the use of strings and inventive harmonies) prove to be all that holds songs like “Maybe It’s Best” and “Until You Learn” back from being too safe and restrained for consumption.
The waning minute of closer “Lullaby” finds the 17-minute EP tiptoeing away from its folk wheelhouse. As cymbals crash, the guitar amp is turned back on and Heron’s distorted “Ohhhh!” weaves waywardly around it all. It hints at an artist who wants to show something more. In all, The Justin Heron EP is a shy-yet-sturdy introduction that ensures the talented musician and skilled producer’s name will only become more familiar to local music fans in no time.
The Justin Heron EP is available for listen and purchase ($5) on his Bandcamp page. Heron will release his EP tonight (Jan. 11) at Circle-A Café (932 E. Chambers St.) with a full band performance. Sulek will headline the show. The show begins at 8 p.m.