This week's profilee is a case study in the difference between vocalists and singers. That this difference can be best understood through a ragtag bar band supergroup is even more surprising.
New Release: Cosmetics (stream it here)
Release Date: February 24, 2015
Record Label: Partisan Records
Location: Nashville, Tenn.
Sounds Like: Deer Tick (NMT); Mean Creek (NMT)
There isn't a direct connection of the beauty of someone's singing voice and their ability to command an audience. Axl Rose hardly could be considered as having an enviable voice, but – before his ego overcame his ability – few could match his magnitude as a frontman. Janice Joplin sang like she was gargling thumbtacks while driving on a dirt road. She was revered as a blues-rock vocalist. Billy Corgan led The Smashing Pumpkins on stadium tours of progressive rock at the height of the grunge era with little more than nasal wheeze to deliver his anthemic lyrics. Lesser known to the masses (but hopefully to regular readers of this space), The Rural Alberta Advantage's (NMT, NMT) Nils Edenloff croons as smoothy as a shot of vinegar, making him the perfect messenger for the band's hardscrabble Canadian prairie cannons.
Such is the case of Deer Tick frontman John McCauley in his second stint with his Diamond Rugs side project. McCauley reunites with a hodgepodge of buddies from other groups for the unit's sophomore effort, the 11-track Cosmetics three years after their self-titled debut. The notable vocal contrast stems from McCauley's interplay with co-lead singer Hardy Morris (who also heads up Dead Confederate as his main gig). Although McCauley's resemblance of Axl Rose is conspicuous, his blend of delivery mechanics and passion distinguishes him as a vocalist while Morris just kind of meanders along as a (not particularly interesting) singer.
In the end, it might not matter at all. The group is a bunch of friends in other bands who get together when they can to write and play songs they enjoy and – not having seen them live yet – might just be the type of band that allows you to have an awesome time at a show, not really caring how great the vocals are or how expertly they play their instruments. That's obvious on a couple standout numbers of punk-tinged, garage rock all recorded on eight tracks or less.
Come for: "Voodoo Doll" – punchy and uncomplicated; note how Morris stumbles through the verses while McCauley sails along in the chorus; keyboardist Robbie Crowell – also of Deer Tick – delivers a delightful little organ track
Stay for: "Live and Shout It" – not sure if that's Morris doing these deadpan, spoken-word style vocals (which aren't great), but the "Willie and the Hand Jive"-meets-early-Springsteen vibe is an exuberant can't-miss sing-along
You'll be surprised by: "Couldn't Help It" – there's that "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" acoustic
guitar-driven rhythm (Morris, McCauley and former Black Lips guitarist Ian Saint Pé form a three-ax unit) paired with solid Everly Brothers-style harmonies
from McCauley and Morris that make this sound straight from 1964
Solid efforts: "Thunk" – while I'm still not wild about Morris out front (he does harmonize well with McCauley, though), the horn section led by Los Lobos' Steve Berlin and Crowell's keys make this more than salvageable; "Meant To Be" – a thumpy blues-rock rumbler, with Berlin's horns again covering the spread; "So What" – a runner-up for the Stay for pick, it's just what this band should sound like, even if the the song itself ain't all that great on its own; "Blame" – after the intro, I expect this to be a Grateful Dead number; again, I don't know who all's doing the singing here, but I like the trading vocals in any case; Crowell's organ nod to Ray Manzarek is a nice touch; "Clean" – a gritty number in the Dylan-goes-electric vein; "Motel Room" – the most Deer Tick-sounding offering here, infused with some "Come Together" bluster; "a funeral at a Chuck E. Cheese" made me chuckle
Meh: "Ain't Religion" – a clear Credence rip-off rhythm; this one would have likely end up on the Skip to next track pile had Morris sang it and not McCauley; slow, thoughtful numbers aren't really what this group was made for; "Killing Time" – it doesn't start off too bad (and Crowell's organ is a highlight along with Saint Pé's tres-70s sounding guitar) but this proof-of-concept (meaning the song reiterates its title or theme in inescapable ways in the performance; something that irritates me to no end) just goes on too long. I get it, you're killing time. It's sufficiently killed.