[19 June 2007]
In Cameron Crowe’s superb film Almost Famous, there’s a moment when Lester Bangs (as channeled by Philip Seymour Hoffman) asks the precocious scribe William Miller what he’s been listening to lately. Miller responds with “Stillwater”, the determined but internally helter-skelter act that he’s been covering for a RollingStone piece. On the opposite end of the phone line, Bangs promptly hangs up. It’s a trenchant instance of callous, elitist-minded dismissal that all critics should strive to guard against. In truth, though, Bangs wasn’t amiss in his aesthetic objection; its smug packaging delivered the real offense. The fictitious Stillwater were likably human but annoyingly populist in their ambitions and rock rhetoric. Drunk on a self-imposed devotion to the masses, they traded in pandering ballads and bombastic, guitar-heavy haymakers that were to exemplify an unconscious gravitation towards genuine rock.
Burning Brides embody the precarious appeal of Stillwater. Bred in Philadelphia and based in Los Angeles, this melodically aggressive rock trio applies a derivative Black Sabbath-meets-grunge-meets-straight pop formula, all draped in earnest but grasping viscerality. While their self-seriousness induces spells of sympathy, it more often veers into overdrawn, hackneyed imagery. On the otherwise top-shelf title track of Hang Love, their third outing, leadman Dimitri Coats hazily murmurs, “Think like a rope / Think like a murder / Never be done / Always go further”. Added to this troubled stab at the macabre, Coats remarks in the album’s press packet that this song evidenced his irresistible sense of mission: “I feel a duty to rock and roll”. Such hapless cliché is almost cinematic and only compounds the inarticulateness of his lyrical dronings. Yet in the vein of Stillwater, Coats, bassist (and wife of the former) Melanie Coats, and drummer Pete Beeman effectively soldier on like overwhelmed underdogs, sort of winning our hearts even as our minds remain a sizable distance away.
Like BB’s 2001 debut Fall of the Plastic Empire and its follow-up from 2004 Leave No Ashes, Hang Love exemplifies the danger of formal pop. After multiple listens, familiarity with the material can convincingly masquerade as artistic appeal. A mammoth gulf actually divides certain Top 40 denizens such as Kelly Clarkson’s “Since You’ve Been Gone”, a classic of sonic intrigue and clarity, from the similarly chart-scaling smashes of, for instance, Nickelback. Both deliver snappy hooks and rousing choruses but, whereas skilled production propels the former, the latter only survives off of quickly recognizable schemes.
Hang Love somewhat suffers from this paucity of invention and surprise. Much of its contents feel too cozily in the right spot. The streamlined, STP-like jangler “Poor House” follows just the course you’d expect, complete with an energy up-tick on the second verse’s register and scratchy guitar picking spread eagerly about. On its heels, “Feel No Shame” arrives, which eases the pace of “House”, roughs up the rhythm but, again, comes across as sanitized and predictable. These are not supposed to be the outcomes of Burning Bride’s aspiringly forceful aesthetic. Their heavy posturing demands a lasting, hard-smack follow through, not this old-hat repetition that offers fleeting satisfaction.
Attempts at calmer moods are no less middling and add a layer of awkward lightness to Hang Love’s mostly dark folds. Admittedly, the album format requires tonal variation like a formality, but the Coldplay-covering-Creed mush of “Unglued” (allegedly inspired by Karen O.) was not the answer. Just consider the effect of the Blood Brothers’ downshift forays—startlingly lush and still an original thrill. The poppish closer “And I’m Free” is an improvement -– a small, sweet pleasure that alternates between crisp guitar chugs and a swooning melody. The trouble is mainly thematic. For a band named Burning Brides, with an album entitled Hang Love, and cover art featuring nooses, flaming torches, and a lifeless tree, this send-off called for wrenching thrusts and punches; something the graceful “And I’m Free” isn’t up for.
Burning Brides work best on Hang Love when they play to their inner quirks, like on the forgivably overlong and unexpected coda of “She Comes to Me” and on “San Diego”, a bracing charger which, in some way, must be ironic. Why insert angular, Rage-esque riffs over a subtext that involves California’s fat-cat conservative stronghold if not for a dose of mild comedy? Even their flirtations with overkill -– “Ring Around the Rosary” and the impossibly apolitical “Your Nation Will Die” –- seem like better, more natural strokes than the sagging second side of Hang Love.
This is a band that simply lacks the innate talent to match the breadth of their ambition. They’re short on the sophistication needed to consistently synchronize a cheerless exterior with music of the same mind. Returning to Almost Famous, Burning Brides feel like a “mid-level band struggling with their own limitations”. To wit, they’re all too human, a flaw impossible to skirt but also magnetically sympathetic.