[13 January 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
It takes a lot of cojones to name your band after a landmark country-rock album, but that’s what this band from Manchester, England, has done, for better or for worse. It’s not the first time someone has done this (anyone remember Sweethearts of the Rodeo, anyone?), but when you name your band after something as iconic as the 1969 debut LP from the Flying Burrito Bros., it’s kind of like taking Exile On Main Street as a moniker. It seems too overtly familiar and conjures up all sorts of associations of your band before it even gets out of the starting gate. It can also be a limiting move, as finding one’s work on the Internet can be next to impossible when a much more famous title is sharing your name and is creating a lot of background noise that’s hard to filter through Google. It’s a bit of a shame in the case of the Gilded Palace Of Sin, the band, because they sound nothing like the Gram Parsons-fronted group and being compared to the Burritos in the same breath might be simply unfair.
In fact, you’ll find few, if any, real close-down-the-honky-tonk barn-burners on the group’s first album You Break Our Hearts, We’ll Tear Yours Out, the title of which sounds like a bar-bust-‘em-up implied threat better suited to, say, Slobberbone. Instead, this three-piece band takes its inspiration more from the atmospheric, somewhat desert-swept songs of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds or Friends of Dean Martinez than pure, traditional country-rock or Americana. It’s a genre of music that gets referred to as “rock noir” and it seems almost cinematic in a spaghetti western kind of way.
If one stripped the atmospherics from the Gilded Palace of Sin, however, you’d find a band that was more on the side of British pub-rock: a kind of slow tempo sound that one wouldn’t feel out of place raising a pint to in a smoky bar. And while there is some interesting stuff going on on this record, the turgid pace of the album over 10 songs eventually takes its toll. It’s almost true that if you’ve heard one song from the Gilded Palace Of Sin, you’ve pretty much heard everything in their canon, despite some slight variations of the theme.
The album gets off to a dreamy start with “For When We Forget”, which is a mostly instrumental and wind-swept piano-driven affair that suffers for being too long. It runs close to the five-minute mark and the final minute is pretty much a singular guitar note being strummed over and over. (It suggests that the Gilded Palace of Sin still have a long way to go in learning songcraft.) “Mean Old Jack” is almost a latter-day Tom Waits song, down to a sort of junkyard clamour, but it, too, is overlong at eight minutes and buffeted by a single kick drum as the only real percussion for much of the track. What is likely the album’s highlight rolls around with “There Is No Evil, There Is No Good”, which has a certain unsettling menace to it, but the song is held down by a plodding pace that the guitars are trying to restlessly escape from.
Part of the problem of the album rests, too, on Pete Phythian’s vocals. He often sounds too ordinary and plain to really suit the material here – he sometimes talk-sings in a Mark E. Smith kind of way – which really needs something gruffer, tougher and more masculine to beef up the material. If, say, Matt Berninger of the National was behind the mike, it would make lyrics like “the weight of my soul’s a heavy burden on my shoulders / and the River Jordan is too wide” really pop.
Still, there is some interesting experimentation and use of unconventional instruments in sometimes staggeringly beautiful ways on this album. There seems to be a bit of computer tweaking of drum sounds, most notably on “Nautilus”, and one can hear a ghostly Theremin, as well as glockenspiels, jaw harps, and music boxes coming through the mix. On an individual level, most of the songs tend to have a big sky, panoramic quality that makes for interesting sonics, even as (perhaps especially as) background music.
However, there’s that matter of pacing, and You Break Our Hearts … really doesn’t lend itself well to listening all of the way through. It’s pretty well the same sluggish clomp from start to end. One might tire of this album by the time “Wedding Rice”, which is more like a funeral dirge than something celebratory, comes around as the eighth track. All in all, while Gram Parsons probably won’t be spinning in his grave as a result of the name appropriation, don’t be fooled by the Gilded Palace of Sin. This is less country than it is music for the country, likely best enjoyed by those who like their music to be spacious and moody, rather than ferocious and threatening, like an album from a band named after a touchstone of the country-rock movement probably should be.