It’s rare to find a band that plays strictly one genre, but Accents is going for the genre-mashing gold with Growth and Squalor. The base sound is acoustic folk, but they rope in rock, post-rock, acoustic pop and more into their amalgam. There’s a lot going on, but for the most part it comes off well.
It’s easy to name this a folk album, because the far and away best track is “Storms,” an unassuming folk tune with gentle fingerpicking, an easily singable melody, and a simple arrangement. It’s almost certainly going to be on my Top 50 Songs of the Year list; it’s the sort of song that appears from nowhere, grabs you, and then returns you to the rest of the album while you wonder what just happened. The fact that “Storms” is a calm stream in an ocean of unrest that is the rest of the album only makes this impression more stark.
“Storms” doesn’t have any drums in it, and that’s a big reason it sounds different. The drum arrangements in these tunes mark them in interesting ways. Although opener “Divide” is fingerpicked like “Storms,” the acrobatic, tom-heavy drums press the tempo and import gravitas into the tune. “With the Light” introduces syncopated snare hits that bring to mind alt-country drumming. It pretty much sounds like Dave Grohl is behind the kit in the rocked-out “Routine Movements,” while the post-rock build of “Sorrow” is accompanied by a hammering rush of cymbals and bass drum.
The variety that the songwriting styles afford are a strength and weakness here: if you’re really into the pop-rock of “The Fog” or the chamber folk of “Way Out,” you won’t hear much like it for the rest of the album. But if you’re not into it, it won’t trouble you again, and you can get to the traditional folky bliss of “Storms” unimpeded. The album is pro-ADD. However, if you can take a wider look at Growth and Squalor, it does have a nice flow that stretches from the uncertainty of “Divide” to the thrash of “Sorrow” (which is its own kind of certainty).
Growth and Squalor by Accents is a fascinating album by a band with a great number of strengths. Instead of focusing on one strength, they give each its moment in the sun. This creates a unique listening experience, but I’m uncertain it’s one that they can (or even want to) repeat. This is a band jumping out of the starting gate, and doing it well. Here’s to the future of Accents.
It is sad that when grunge pretty much died in 1994, the post-grunge movement chose Nirvana as the jumping-off point instead of Smashing Pumpkins. The musical output of Billy Corgan and Co. was much more progressive and provided more potential artistic avenues than that of Cobain, Grohl and Novoselic. Fans of Nirvana got dozens of soundalike bands to help them through their grief. Fans of Smashing Pumpkins got…more Smashing Pumpkins.
For those who wish there was more Corgan to go around, I present to you The Empty Mirror’s Abstracted Catholic Opus (they refuse to label it an EP). Fuse the early nineties sound of Pumpkins with some modern production values and a bit of indie-rock pompousness, and you’ve got Abstracted Catholic. If you’re a fan of Corgan, you are allowed to foam at the mouth a bit. If you’re decidedly anti-Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, you may need to look away now.
These five songs are short, punchy and full of attitude. While bandleader Grant Valdes is cut from the same cloth as Corgan in terms of pretentiousness and guitar aesthetic, these songs are not mere Pumpkins rip-offs. There’s a modern indie aesthetic attached to these songs that’s hard to put a finger on until you listen to Pumpkins songs for contrast. The mood of Abstracted Catholic (which the one-sheet calls nightmericana, interestingly) is highly important and carefully developed through use of bass, neutral space, and other songwriting mechanisms. The Empty Mirror isn’t just pounding out the rock with a grating sneer over it (as the other band I keep mentioning revels in doing). They’re writing songs, not just rock songs.
When all is said and done, fans of Smashing Pumpkins will find much to love here. Fans of thoughtful indie rock can find things to appreciate as well, as Valdes is a good songwriter. There’s a lot of ways that The Empty Mirror can go to break away from the Pumpkins comparisons, as the band has left a lot of loose ends of their sound unexplored. I’m not sure, however, if that’s something they want to break away from. Interesting, but not long-term listening.
With their first full-length release from 2007, Our Future Is History, Long Island alternative band Black Suit Youth places themselves into a place that lies somewhere between Rise Against and Foo Fighters. The Rise Against comparison comes from the band’s songwriting style, which sticks with fairly heavy guitar riffs (but not so heavy that it goes into hardcore or metal) and rapid, driving drums and bass. Singer Bryan Maher’s voice is a deep and rich baritone and as he belts out his notes, it is reminiscent of Foo Fighters’ singer Dave Grohl, hence that comparison.
All this, unfortunately, leaves the band feeling derivative but still enjoyable. The simple fact here is that, while the band has some good lyrics and some hefty guitar work, there’s not really a terribly strong sense of personality here. The main impression one gets is that Black Suit Youth, formerly known as The New York Dynamite, still hasn’t quite found themselves – despite the name change. Sure, the music is catchy and without a doubt marketable to alternative radio stations all over the country, but it just doesn’t say “We’re Black Suit Youth, this is our song.” There’s no sense of identity – the band tries very hard to stand out, but at the end of the day, Black Suit Youth’s music won’t leave enough of an impression for the band to stick in the listener’s mind. I’ve listened to the album three times today for this review and, still, none of the songs stick out in my mind.
One pitfall that many bands fall into is thankfully avoided in Our Future Is History – the tendency to write songs that sound too similar. There is a fine amount of variety here. While there may not be any genre-bending between songs to make them really stand apart, they differentiate mainly through diversity of rhythm. However, the band is so hellbent on rocking out that they never take the time to slow down, save for a few select sections. Maybe it’s cliché, but how about a ballad? Maher’s got the vocal cords for it, and writing a ballad doesn’t make anyone a pansy.
This is one band that could benefit from an experimental stage – playing around with different sounds and styles could provide a gateway to finding a real sense of identity. While they could easily get on the radio now, it seems unlikely that anyone serious about music would take them seriously.
P.S. – The album art has to be about the most bizarre I’ve ever seen. It features a slightly pudgy, tattooed dude in black pants, a studded belt and a tucked-in wife beater, with cheetah’s heads for his man boobs that are spitting lightning while his face is blurred and some kind of cherub dances on his shoulder while he’s standing in a field at sunset. Yeah, weird.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.