By Meg McCarney
Alabama natives WILLIS recently dropped Locals 4, the latest installment in their series of intimate EPs that nod to their tight-knit fanbase and hometown. They’ve always presented themselves as more of a collective than a band, plastering their signature phrase “LOCALS ONLY’ across all of their social media pages. They’re big on sustaining a sense of intimacy and fostering a sense of closeness even as their fanbase expands, thanks in large part to social apps like TikTok popularizing their music.
That close-knit dynamic also exists within the band. All of the members met and started the band together in high school. Glenn O’Steen, drummer, and Will O’Steen, on keys, are brothers. Thus, the real magic of WILLIS lies in their undeniable chemistry, the instrumentation that erupts when true friends get together and each finds their strengths on a track.
Led by Murphy Billings on vocals, the band is impressively polished for a relative newcomer to the scene, and secure in their signature sound...which is an amalgamation of many different influences. Genre-wise, they’re a bit all over the place. They’re part blues, some soul, a bit of indie, and hint at lackadaisical surf rock, as well. Perhaps this would read as a lack of identity or terrible indecision in other bands. Here, however, WILLIS makes you feel like it’s all a part of the plan; never once do you get the sense that they’re making up things as they go along. Brilliantly, they’ve given themselves an out by branding themselves as purveyors of genre-hybrid pops, allowing themselves room to experiment and grow over time.
Regardless of the genre-mashes WILLIS concocts, each of their songs comes out sounding effortlessly cool. Similarly to Hot Flash Heat Wave minus a bit of the alternative edge, or a modern-day indie-pop hybrid like Wallows, every song of theirs is ocean-water-washed and air-dried in the sun. There’s something so effortlessly summer-like about the songs on Locals 4, with production and delicate instrumentation soaked in nostalgia and optimism.
Building off of the foundation of Locals 3, the band continues to be purveyors of lighthearted lyricism, which touches on the minutiae we tend to zero in on emotionally when examining the big picture of life. Why doesn’t this person like me? What constitutes a “bad person”? Why am I still wracked by this grief? There’s a lot of surface-level longing and stream of consciousness frustration here — nothing that will inspire more than a bit of shallow soul-searching. Lyrically, WILLIS doesn’t deliver anything too potent, but the real charm of this EP lies in its perfectly orchestrated blend of production, genuine chemistry, and killer instrumentation.
The project opens with “Pool House,” boasting twinkling strings, peppy drums, and an airy, expansive feel, thanks in large part to the silky smoothness of Billings’ vocals, whose crooning comes across as effortless. “Life’s too fast, I tried to slow it down, but nothing ever lasts,” he laments, introducing the project as one characteristic of WILLIS: wistful, with one foot in the present and one in the past.
“Bad Kids” is a bit of a tongue-in-cheek number, juxtaposing royalty-free sound effects with a chugging, groovy bassline and lots of harmonizing. It reflects a bit on our notions of whom the “bad kids” were growing up; namely, anyone who chose drugs and alcohol as a pastime or an escape route. Billings finds himself in this same position in his twenties, turning to drugs “like the bad kids do.” Part admission of one’s vices, part denouncement of the notion that one’s habits render them inherently evil; “Bad Kids” is a humbling moment of realization.
Much of the back half of the EP serves to show off the instrumental and production chops of the band. On “Potassium,” bass-led once again with an earworm of a riff, Billings gets a chance to showcase his falsetto on the final lines, “I’m needing closure to hold my heavy heart before it falls apart.” “In Between” remains a standout with its bouncy production, while “Waiting” is a rumination on just that — waiting for a partner (or yourself) to mature, biding time until a more exciting reality arrives. Its vocal layering is tidy, with steady percussion serving as the proverbial glue holding the track together.
“Overthinker” closes out the album, which remains an interesting placement choice on the track list. It is a remarkably tame, albeit bluesy, track, even for a record revolving around the themes of peace and reflection. “Maybe I’m overthinking it, It’s not as hard as I think it is,” Billings sings, delivering lyrics that aren’t quite as hard-hitting as you’d hope you’d find in a closing number. It does showcase some gorgeous reverb, however.
While Locals 4 finds WILLIS trying to step in a more introspective direction — along the lines of what they did with their single, “Fight the Vegans” — they’re still a bit away from the kind of depth that would surely cement them as a true powerhouse within the scene. The tracks on this EP often seem like a platform for Billings’ vocals to shine, or to show off some flashy production, but the lyrics fall short of achieving the same potency. They scratch the surface of longing, regret, and mental distress, but never dig any deeper than below the topsoil. As such, the tracks remain light and incredibly easy on the ears but are just a step away from reaching their true potential.
WILLIS, as they’ve shown across countless releases, display a powerful knack for adapting and tweaking their sound over time. Until their lyrics come around, rest assured that the music still sounds beautiful and remains worth a listen. However, those looking for immediate gratification in the form of hard-hitting, gut-punching revelations on a track will probably want to find a second outlet for scratching that sonic itch elsewhere.