Album review: Van Mary (self-titled EP)


Little by little, one or two choice tracks at a time, Van Mary has seemingly climbed toward the top tier of Austin rock. If quantity is less of a relevant criterion than quality, then perhaps they’ve officially arrived there with this excellent new self-titled EP, released last Friday.

At four songs and 13 minutes, Van Mary is easily (at least, as far as I know) the most recorded output anyone has ever gotten of singer-guitarist Emily Whetstone’s introspective and socially conscious rock project at one time. Whetstone and her backing musicians — who have revolved a bit over the past several years — play shows, impress people and then offer one isolated, impressive single at a time that shows Whetstone’s eye for the world and her way with compelling verbiage.

“New Mexico,” released in 2019, was based on her own obstacles she faced several years earlier in trying to end her pregnancy, and took stock of the state of women’s rights with a presentation rooted in both frustration and an appeal to compassion. “Hug,” from that insipid year 2020, was a shimmering, imaginative pandemic picture capturing the boredom, demotivation, whiskey in coffee cups and isolation of (relative) lockdown. Both were quite strong, and it’s perhaps been curious how little else we got in their wake — but hey, recording costs money.

The quartet of tracks we get here — one of which, “Connie Converse,” was previously a 2021 single — just keep building Whetstone’s songwriting canon, and she’s backed with the sharp work of bassist Katelynn Garza, guitarist-keyboardist Jim Campo and drummer Adrian Audain. Walker Lukens’ production finesses a driving rawness while also lacquering on a power-pop sheen. There are more than a few echoes of Best Coast coming out here, which is hardly a bad thing.

Riding some heavy bass from Garza and a ’60s pop-reminiscent melody, “Ennui” spills all the conflicting feelings over the end of a bad relationship, from acknowledgment that it was bad (“trying to forget about how shitty you made me feel”) to admitting that moving on isn’t that easy (“Yeah, I miss you ’cause I’m a pathetic loser”) to the desperate bargaining you feel like doing that obviously wouldn’t represent personal growth (“If I promise to behave/If I do everything that you say/If I dye my hair blonde/If I write you a love song”/Would you come back to me?”).

The focus is more on personal struggle than politics or society this go-round, but Whetstone leaves room to allude to both. Two songs find the time to touch on health struggles, including the intriguing rocker “Connie Converse” (“Took myself to a PCP/She kinda looked like my first stepmom/I said, ‘If I’m so healthy, why does it feel like I’m dying?'”). “Green Ray,” a ballad with an airy alt-country feel, mentions a trip to the ER and a kidney infection, but is more broadly zeroed in on detrimental selflessness and self-destruction. (“I’m always quick to give everything” … “I’m the only one fuckin’ me over/Still I do nothing.”)

Closing with “Poppy,” a fuzzy and powerful declaration of self-esteem in contrast with what came before it (“I’m not going back to you like you try to make me believe that I need to”), Whetstone wraps things up leaving you with a feeling that this is a concept EP of sorts (those do exist, right?): This is a chronicle of someone who needs to move on and finally, after much soul-searching and brain-wringing, has the courage to do it.

Now, to that quantity thing, and the all-important quantitative verdict: EPs face an uphill battle in my five-star album rating scale, where quantity is a strong determinant of a lofty score. A seven-track LP, for example, is going to face a hard road to getting five stars, and so, too, does an EP of any length. But this one sure does leave you impressed — and, naturally, wanting more.

Rating: **** stars out of 5