For the first half of The Nevers, Connecticut’s Saint Bernadette sound like that unlikeliest of appartitions: a hard-rocking band that means it. Built around the throaty vocals of Meredith DiMenna, with simple but effective backup from guitars-bass-drums quartet Keith Saunders, Joe Novelli, Dan Carlisle and Kenny Owens, Saint Bernadette conjure up Zeppelin-esque blues-rock, sultry slow-burn torchers, and headlong riffage. For half an album, it’s glorious: Saint Bernadette have the tunes, and the chops, to convincingly hammer away like it’s 1979.
Then everything falls apart. But let’s not go there quite yet, okay? Let’s keep on rawking a minute.
Opening track “In the Time of Moses” stomps out of the speakers like a lost Zep tune, or better yet, something from Mountain, with bulldozing guitars and DiMenna’s voice howling above it all. It’s a track for the ages, and it sets the bar pretty high; wisely, the band takes a different approach for the very next tune. “Over the Line” begins with a softly purring vocal and an ascending bassline that will grow, over the next three minutes, into a whirlwind. By the time DiMenna howls “Then I better see your ass / Running the hell away from me”, that low-key opening has proven deceptive indeed, and the song whirls on into a crescendo of towering riffs. At this point, you would be forgiven for slapping the steering wheel — you’re driving your dad’s Trans Am, right? — really hard.
“Elsa” wastes no time with crescendos or builts, preferring instead to belt out its hypnotic squall from the get-go, with DiMenna’s jerky melody a perfect foil for the rock-steady rhythms; the only complaint here is that at 2:25, the song is too short by half. “Whatcha Prayin’ For” is longer, but also duller; fortunately the crunch-stomp of “Take It If It’s Yours” is there to re-inject a welcome dose of rockitudinousness. At this point, the listener is inclined to forgive the misstep of “Whatcha Prayin’ For” and its companion piece, “I Get Lost”, maybe even seeing them as providing a slow-down between riffs. After all, even Zep eased off the gas once in a while, no?
The bad news: We’re halfway through the record, and it’s all going to slow down from here. “In the Next Go Round” brings back the mellow in the worst way, with soulful harmony vocals that might sound good on soneone else’s record but feel out of place here. “Winding Road” starts with a bang, promising more tasty rocking goodness, but quickly melts into a puddle of downtempo neo-soul. It aims for epic, but fails, only to be followed by the egregious “Night in Gale,” a presumably tender song that’s about as good as its title suggests.
The last remaining hint of the band’s considerable oomph raises its head again for “Kiss the Devil”, a Stones-y stomper that clocks in for, uh, 85 seconds. Then it’s on to album finale “Close Enough for Me,” another — you guessed it — sensitive, mellow, downtempo snoozer. The album ends with a whimper, not a bang.
Which is a damn shame. Bands that can rock convincingly, with decent musicianship and good songs, are a rare breed these days, and Saint Bernadette have the tools to stand out from the pack. For five or six songs, they do just that.