Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Onward, Soldiers

It was only recently that I've realized the importance of having access to an iPod – or a similar portable mp3-player device – when conducting a music review. Until now, I would customarily download my next review subject about a week before the intended post, and then spend a good 3-4 days listening to the material in transit to various destinations. But, with the earphone jack on my nearly six-year old iPod severely on the fritz, I'm temporarily resorted to listening via my more cumbersome e-mail machine. | #firstworldproblems | So, the sorts of customary references you might be accustomed to in this space – "vocals reminiscent of Roy Orbison" or "guitar riff in the Rick Nielsen tradition" – might be less frequent than usual until this obstacle is resolved. Apologies in advance.

Which brings us to this week's review, Monsters – the sophomore release from the Wilmington, N.C.-based Americana quartet, Onward Soldiers – out February 21 on Winoca Records. The nine-track effort pairs catchy, heartland rockers with more rootsy alt-country fare, and is a more fully-rendered vision of the group's sound compared to their 2009 debut, Ghost in the Town. The more expansive output is understandable, given the band doubled its make-up between records, with charter members – guitarist, pianist and frontman Sean Thomas Gerard and drummer Kevin Rhodes – adding lead guitarist Lincoln Morris and bassist Jarrett Dorman in the meantime. The expansion in numbers transformed the unit from a more upbeat version of Blind Pilot into a full-fledged rock-country fusion ensemble.

The proceedings begin jazzy and gently, via opener and leadoff single, "Telling Nobody." The easy-rolling piano from Gerard trades off well with Morris' understated electric guitar jangle. Gerard's vocals most closely match those of former Broken West (and now Apex Manor) singer Ross Flournoy's slight rusty twang battling with the pop-rock veneer of Rooney's Robert Schwartzman. In any case, the number is supremely comfortable with it's own pace, not in a particular hurry to get anywhere, but also not meandering. It's a fine introduction to and for the group.

It's follow-up, "Nighttime Sky," is a bit more adventurous, with a lurking haunt in both instrumentation and lyricism. The alternating roles for both strings and horns – paired with a ominous tango rhythm from Dorman and Rhodes – suggests back alleys and dark rooms where mischief is certain to unfold. Morris' muffled riffs recall Johnny Cash guitarist Luther Perkins' distinctive 1/8-8/5/8-8 picking style.

Changing course with a hard pivot is the 80s-rock thumper, "Cinder Blocks." The muted electric guitar part from Gerard in the opening verses suggests hits from that decade from the likes of Rick Springfield, Bryan Adams and John Mellencamp. But all of the catchiness and none of the campiness of that era make the number the record's finest. It's straight-forward, hooky and earnest – the sort of output the band should square its direction on going forward.

The western rambler, "Living on the Run" comes across like a too-forced blend of ZZ Top and Tom Waits. Not to be confused, it's not a bad effort, but there's not much variation beyond Rhodes prominent snare and warbling lines from Morris and a mournful harmonica solo at the bridge. As a result, the track seems much longer than its listed 3:43, while its predecessor skated through its 4:46 with far more ease and levity.  The ode to the road theme continues on "Highway Calling," and while the tempo is even slower here, the floating organ notes and weeping slide guitar that define the number's beginning third are a fitting preface to the alt-country jamboree that breaks out over the remaining three minutes. It's not quite Wilco (NMT) territory yet, but more in the vein of Southeast Engine (NMT) or The Overmountain Men (NMT) – perfectly fine purveyors of the genre.

The bouncy title track adds a touch of Black Keys (NMT) influence, although it's a little sparse at times beyond Gerard's trippy narrative.  Meanwhile, the thoroughly country "Cry" sounds absolutely prehistoric, in a good way. Like the opener, it's fully at ease with its tempo and heading, with Gerard offering more swaying piano, Morris' delivering his best slide guitar work on the compilation and Dorman and Rhodes keeping things pleasantly loose, especially on the well-crafted chorus.

Rounding out the album are the dead-center ballad, "Carolina" and the more reflective "Leap Year." While the former is sufficiently rootsy and easy to digest, the home state references become a bit redundant, after Gerard took pains to insert Carolina references in both "Cinder Blocks" and "Highway Calling." By now, we get that you and your band are proud Carolinians; it's okay to tell us something new. But, other than that, it's fine. The latter – a fitting nod to the record's year of publication – is rooted in Gerard's measured piano, with little noticeable involvement from his cohorts. But it would probably work well as a first-encore, lighter-check number.

Come for: "Telling Nobody"
Stay for: "Cinder Blocks"
You'll be surprised by: "Cry"

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