[4 March 2008]
Unless an artist emerges onto the scene in unconventional fashion, an overemphasis on candidness in contemporary rock music is often looked upon as a glaring red flag. The preference for style over substance unfortunately still lingers in the minds of many songwriters, and this can create animosity with listeners who view a focus on sensitive – albeit traditional – issues like rampant sexual orgies and mindless drug use as nothing more than aimless stabs at more press coverage. That being said, if an artist is going to dwell on such issues, the least they could do is back it up with musical arrangements that remain memorable after more than a few listens. The primary fault that many found with Louis XIV’s debut album, The Best Little Secrets Are Kept, was that the San Diego-based quartet lingered too much on perverse lyrical content and too little on actual melodic instrumentation. Though appealing singles like “Finding Out True Love Is Blind” and “God Killed the Queen” allowed the band to chart in both the US and UK, the inconsistent release left many listeners generally dissatisfied, hungry for the potential that both singles exhibited in their occasional strokes of success.
Though calling Louis XIV glam-rock revivalists would arguably be the most appropriate classification, their incorporation of standard alternative and blues rock has defined a sound that is more classifiably dependent on a singular track, rather than on an album that flows coherently. However, amidst the frequent stylistic indecisiveness, the band has occasionally shown the ability to craft admirable, arena-sized hooks. Their second album, Slick Dogs and Ponies, is comparable to their debut in several ways. The most blatant comes in the leading singles from both albums, “Finding Out True Love Is Blind” and “Air Traffic Control”. Apart from sharing placement as the second track on each of their respected albums, they are both the most successfully executed tracks on their releases by a long shot. So, what could this possibly tell you about the songwriting methods of Louis XIV? For one thing, their tendency to craft fillers is not something that should be admired. For every accomplished single, there seems to be three or four middling songs accompanying it. Considering that the four-piece has shown potential in the past, it is not an impossible obstacle to overcome. Unfortunately, Slick Dogs and Ponies does not even come relatively close to seeing the band in their fullest form.
In a probable effort to answer the critics who deemed The Best Little Secrets Are Kept as a mundanely predictable effort, the most noticeable melodic transition the band has made on Slick Dogs and Ponies is the implementation of strings. The songwriting duo of Jason Hill and Brian Karscig must have found the idea to be quite amusing too, as both vital and subtle uses of strings appear on each of the album’s 11 tracks. While it adds considerable flavor to commendable songs like “Air Traffic Control” and “Guilt By Association”, it feels too forced on muddled efforts like the disorganized “Misguided Sheep” and “Swarming of the Bees”, the latter which is actually quite embarrassing. You would at least expect a group so fixated on glam and blues-rock to try some variation in their guitar-based chord structures, but an effort like “Swarming of the Bees” sees nothing but a few elementary chords thrown over randomized solos. Louis XIV’s interpretation of a guitar ballad comes in “Hopesick”, a generally amiable track where most of the strength relies on the piano and string arrangements. Alongside tracks like “Air Traffic Control” and “Tina”, it at least continues to show that Hill and Karscig are perfectly capable of captivating a niche with relatively solid songwriting. To be fair though, an embarrassing attempt like “Swarming of the Bees” is not helping their case one bit.
Despite the numerous hiccups throughout Slick Dogs and Ponies, fans of Louis XIV’s debut may at least be impressed with the group’s ambitiousness on a few select tracks. It is a step up, sure, but hardly cause for much applause. Apart from the string-induced infectiousness of “Air Traffic Control”, the gritty and exciting “Guilt By Association”, and the key-led eeriness of “Stalker”, the entertaining “Tina” prevails as one with of the band’s stronger efforts. Hill and Karscig exchange vocal cues while interpreting a dreary night on the town, also entailing the gruesome work week it took to get there. “You’re so bitchy, you make me itchy, can’t you just turn me on some more?” Hill sings in a commendable falsetto, uplifted by an enjoyably volatile chorus. The lyrical content may be inevitably predictable, but the track is entertaining nonetheless. However, apart from those specific tracks, there is simply not much on Slick Dogs and Ponies worth checking out. Like the debut, most of the worthwhile moments can be found in the album’s first half. Regardless of how much Hill’s vocals resemble Bowie’s “Space Oddity” at one point during “Air Traffic Control” or how similar the chord progressions throughout the album are to a handful of T. Rex tracks, there is no dismissing the group’s banal weaknesses and stylistic limitations. At this point, they are bringing nothing new to a genre that has already been beaten to death by modern artists with similar intentions. Whether the majority of Slick Dogs and Ponies was the result of impatience or laziness is largely irrelevant. What will instead be recognized by most listeners is that Louis XIV has a considerable amount of work to do for listeners to regard them as more than aimless glam-rock fetishists.