After some time spent listening to this week's reviewees, I've realized that I cut a bit more critical slack to male vocalists with higher voices than I do with lower ones. Looking back on some previous reviews, I've given leeway to some groups with vocalists who's nasal pitch and tone could easily be a turn-off – such as Titus Andronicus (NMT), Telegraph Canyon (NMT) or the Rural Alberta Advantage (NMT, NMT) – while routinely chastising other singers for low-register performances, like I did with Tokyo Police Club (NMT) and Miracles of Modern Science (NMT). The larger point is if a band puts out enjoyable and interesting songs, shouldn't I give baritones and basses the same credit I afford tenors? This profile will be an exercise in that expanded view, through the debut of the Minneapolis, Minn., quintet, Howler – America Give Up, out on January 17 on Rough Trade Records.
It should be noted right off the bat that I dislike Howler frontman Jordan Gatesmith's vocals on the most of the album's 11 tracks. It's growly and sloppy, and takes away attention from his generally high-quality songwriting, which is especially advanced for his age (19). Sure, there have been a good handful of great, deep-singing vocalists through the history of rock – Jim Morrison and Joey Ramone immediately come to mind, while your blogger's first meaningful experience with adult music came via a group with the most lower-limits lead singer of them all, the Crash Test Dummies' Brad Roberts. But Gatesmith's efforts to work within his range come across as a failure of execution at best or supreme laziness at worst. Sure, some of this could be a result of a still unfamiliar adult voice during the late teenage years, so his future work may offer some opportunities to refine his style.
Setting aside his self-inflicted vocal shortcomings, the bulk of Gatesmith's work on America Give Up points to a promising start for a young songwriter. Reflecting the grainy surf rock experiencing a resurgence lately via acts like Wavves (NMT) and Surfer Blood, Gatesmith's compositions are high-energy and briskly paced, like opener "Beach Sluts." The bouncy guitars from Gatesmith and Ian Nygaard hold their own with Brent Mayes' pulsing drums. The slower slog of "Back to the Grave" isn't far off the American Slang sound from the Gaslight Anthem (NMT), although Gatesmith's sludgy vocals first become apparent here. Fortunately, they're balanced out with a who-hoo chorus and cycling guitars.
The perky punk of "This One's Different" is more playful than its predecessors, and its simplicity in song structure is the track's key virtue. It hums along without much restraint and signals a pace that should be well-suited to live settings. The clangy guitars of "America" point to more retro garage band influences, arching back to The Kingsmen and The Kinks, although it would have benefited from a greater role for keyboardist Max Petrek, who could have added some color to the snarly arrangement. A Farfisa organ line here could have shifted the number to a true vintage sound.
Meanwhile, the murky, muddy ballad "Too Much Blood" won't be considered the record's hallmark. Although Gatesmith's growl can be tolerated when driven by a brisk pace, it's a draining influence here, making everything sound slower and less smartly composed. Moreover, the melody and rhythm are largely unchanged throughout the cut, only adding to its plodding nature.
Fortunately, the remainder of the collection not only rebounds from here, but improves. "Wailing (Making Out)" allows the fullest sample of Petrek's work, with his whirring organ part filling in the number's intensity. Meanwhile, "Pythagorean Fearem" is rambunctious in an Iggy & the Stooges kind of way, hardly pausing for a breath in the short 2:28 runtime, and might be the perfect outlet for Gatesmiths skills at both singing and songwriting at this stage.
In "Told You Once," the inclusion of Gatesmith's acoustic guitar on top of Nygaard's surf style electric lines adds crispness and distinctiveness from the album's other tracks. And while it's subject number is decidedly self-loathing, it hardly wallows in that internal pity, with an upbeat melody and energetic accompaniment from Myers and bassist France Camp. And despite its unfortunate landing spot late in the lineup, first single "Back of Your Neck" is easily the group's finest output here. It's exuberant and catchy, in the spirit of uptempo pop-rock outfits like Los Campesinos! (NMT) and Grouplove (NMT) with who-ho choruses and lively lead guitar lines. It only wants of a couple horns to add a bit more punch, and Nygaard's solo is surprisingly sparse-sounding, considering the overall jubilant vibe. But these are rookie mistakes, and excusable considering the quality of the number.
Later on, "Free Drunk" could have fit well on Telekinesis' 12 Desperate Straight Lines (NMT), although it could have benefited from the same sort of brightness Michael Benjamin Lerner employed on that record. But, otherwise, it's a fine attempt at fairly straightforward hooky rock. "Black Lagoon" returns the snotty surfer punk last heard on the record's opening third, and it's enjoyable in its snarly whiplash. "Horrorshow" closes things out on a low-fi, noise rock plane. It's not the best thing here, but I'd much rather hear more of this direction in the future from Gatesmith than the dispassionate clutter of "Too Much Blood."
Come for: "Back of Your Neck"
Stay for: "Pythagorean Fearem"
You'll be surprised by: "Told You Once"