Student Life Archives (2001-2008)

Album Reviews

Bernell Dorrough

Pretty Girls Make Graves
The New Romance
Matador Records
For fans of: At the Drive-In, Sleater-Kinney
Grade: B-
Final Word: A loss of frantic energy leaves this album lacking

For those who were fortunate enough to hear it, Pretty Girls Make Graves’ 2002 debut “Good Health” was a blistering bit of emotionally charged rock. Clocking in at a mere 27 minutes, it felt like the work of a band with limited studio time that nailed every intricate passage on the first take. The band’s sophomore follow-up, “The New Romance,” sees PGMG taking their time to develop songs more fully, but at the expense of the frantic energy and urgency that characterized “Good Health.”

Like At The Drive-In, Pretty Girls Make Graves specialize in combining the angst and attitude of punk with quick tempo changes and complex instrumental segments. They can rattle off a three-minute rocker with the best of them while keeping things interesting with creative drum beats and finely picked guitar lines. “All Medicated Geniuses” encapsulates this style perfectly, shifting between massive hooks and multi-layered time signatures. Tracks like “Chemical, Chemical” and “The Teeth Collector” follow suit, showcasing PGMG’s anthemic riffing and impressive musical chops. On such tunes, lead singer Andrea Zollo (reminiscent of Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker) belts out troubled youth lyrics like “Doesn’t feel like being positive all the time / Doesn’t sit still, doesn’t look well / Give him something, make it chemical … You’ll feel better when you cannot feel.”

Unfortunately, whereas nearly every song from “Good Health” sounded like a teenage riot instigator, “The New Romance” sometimes induces sleep when it should incite fervor. The opening track, “Something Bigger, Something Brighter,” far from living up to its title, actually begins the album on an underwhelming note. When Zollo proclaims, “Make it electric,” it comes across as a whiny request rather than a call to arms. Other tracks are simply unnecessary and/or bad, particularly the minute-long instrumentals “Mr. Club,” “7,” and the repetitive “Blue Lights,” in which Zollo keeps droning, “Hello, I’m neurotic/Creating problems that don’t exist/Don’t believe me when I say it’s alright.” After one or two listens you’ll think these pretty girls are digging your grave too.

It’s not all the band’s fault-the sleek production also brings the excitement factor down a few notches. The band sounds contained and restrained; in effect, the music gets tranquilized by the fine tuning, which is surprising considering that Phil Ek, who pushed the buttons for Modest Mouse and Built to Spill, is behind the controls for a second time. Whatever the reason, “The New Romance” just doesn’t inspire the same way PGMG’s previous effort did. Their steps toward a more developed sound are laudable, but spirit and enthusiasm always come before a polished exterior, and this romance is definitely missing its emotional base.

The Riverboat Gamblers
Something to Crow About
Gearhead Records
For fans of: the MC5, Motorhead, the Stooges
Grade: A-
Final Word: An unknown band makes a nearly great album

For anyone who has been missing the sound of pure, unadulterated rock and roll, the Riverboat Gamblers have arrived. Their second album, “Something to Crow About,” is everything that a good rock album should be-loud, fast, raunchy, and, above all else, fun.

Mixing the sound of 60s garage rock with the later hard rock and heavy metal of bands like AC/DC and Motorhead, the Riverboat Gamblers, a five-man ensemble from Austin, Texas, sound like a band who has just woken up from a long night of drinking only to take a shot of Jack Daniel’s in order to get the party going again. Song titles like “Hey! Hey! Hey!,” “Ooh Yeah” and “Cut-Cut-Cut-Cut” give the listener a bit of a preview what he or she is going to be in for-something simple, hard, and straight to the point.

The album begins with the heavy stomp of “Let’s Eat,” which, like any good rock song, knows to die before it gets old-except, in this case, that is only fifteen seconds after it has begun.

“What’s What” follows, lead singer Mike “Teko” Wiebe boasting in a voice somewhere between a shout and a scream. The song conjures the image of a music club so full of dancing, jumping, writhing bodies that sweat has collected on the walls and on the ceiling, a room literally dripping with rock and roll. Keeping up the same tempo for the rest of the album, the band mixes in sloppy, stinging guitar solos, catchy choruses, and many shout-along breakdowns that surely result in crowd participation when the band plays live.

When all of the rock and roll energy seems to get a bit monotonous around track six, the band changes direction with the near-perfect pop song “Ice Water.” With a chord progression that will remain in listeners’ heads for days, a strangely melodic solo, and a morbid chorus-“Slit my wrists in ice water / You’ll find me when you get home”-the song proves that the Riverboat Gamblers are far from one-trick ponies. The jangling guitar line of “Last to Know” lends a wistful quality to the song-almost like a hangover at the end of the party the rest of the album has been creating. This is followed up on the final track, “Lottie Mae,” a 60s style pop ballad, adding another dimension to the album and winding the party down fully.

The Riverboat Gamblers have made what will most likely shape up to be one of the best rock albums of the year. Too bad it’s most likely that not many people will ever hear it.

Saves the Day
In Reverie
Vagrant Records
For fans of: Weezer, Dashboard Confessional, Taking Back Sunday
Grade: C
Final Word: A disappointing effort for fans of the band

Between the whine of Weezer guitars and the raw fervor of Dashboard Confessional, Saves the Day staked their claim to a new kind of earnest emotional-rock with releases such as their sophomore album “Through Being Cool.” They shocked the music industry in 2001-2002 by selling more than 120,000 copies of their third album, “Stay What You Are,” with no corporate push and virtually no airplay. The record even debuted in the Billboard top 100.

These successes have helped earn Saves the Day a reputation as an authentic “emo” band, while earning them a loyal fan base through the sheer vitality of their music. Unfortunately, their latest alum, “In Reverie,” pales in comparison to their early works, but is a testament to their years of experimenting with different musical genres.

As a result, perhaps, “In Reverie” is confused. It jumps from the punk pop of “Where are You” to the post-grunge snarling of “Rise,” to the rocking out of “Morning in the Moonlight.” While there are moments as in “Where Are You” that are sheer genius, where Saves the Day frontman Chris Conley relies on his vocals and careful backup-harmony to carry the song, other songs are too formulaic or slow to keep the listener’s interest all the way through. Despite the inconsistencies, however, there are moments in which the band comes close to reaching melodic perfection.

But no melody is perfect without the right words. Though formerly touted for their lyrical skills the way Marshal Mathers is for his rhymes, the writing on this album took a turn for the bizarre. Take for example an excerpt from “What Went Wrong”: “Leonard looked like a ghost gave him a foot massage/Molly shook like a fish dangling on a line/Walter wore women’s clothes.” Of course, these don’t even come close to the terror imparted by the chorus of “Monkey” in which we hear about a deranged primate who is intent on biting. Indeed, what went wrong?

Ultimately, the most disappointing thing about In Reverie is Conley’s relatively withdrawn, conservative vocals. Earlier Saves the Day listeners who are familiar with such classics as “At Your Funeral” can’t help but remember Conley’s unforgiving, soul-wrenching wailing. Though Conley may be the Whitney Houston of punk, he sounds a little more like a chastised choir-boy in this go around.

For Conley, it may be time to clean out the old pipes. For everyone else, it may be time to plumb the depths of your musical appreciation. If you do, you might just acquire a healthy toleration for “In Reverie” that borders on enjoyment. If not, blame Conley’s flow. He’s certainly no Eminem.

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