The concept of a supergroup has always been a dicey affair in the annals of rock. The temptation to assess such bands through the lens of their respective main groups’ outputs is a hard one to resist. Coupled with that is rock fans’ almost schizoid vacillating expectations for projects involving their favorite musicians. Most fervid fans (myself included) foster hopes for the new endeavor to surpass the participants’ established oeuvre, for the strongest components of distinct bands to come together and yield the best material of their careers. At the same time, this anticipation is usually tempered by a cynical conviction that the new offering will be decidedly inferior, the product of disparate parts clanging against each other rather than meshing cohesively. (“Scott Weiland is joining up with the guys from Guns ‘N’ Roses? This is going to be awesome! *Sigh* Who am I kidding? No, no, it won’t.”) We want to get Cream, but we tend to end up with Velvet Revolver.
The vanity license plate-named RNDM, though, has managed to undercut the criticisms leveled against most supergroups that fall on their face, predominantly by not attempting to be some grandiose construct. Comprising cult singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur, Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament, and drummer Richard Stuverud, the band comes across as buddies making music for the hell (or joy) of it, rather than a contrived shtick designed to rake in the disposable income of distinct fan bases. This perception is bolstered by the fact that though Arthur and Ament’s main projects inspire intense devotion, neither man is a chart-topping rock star or concerned with taking on that guise. In this light, the trio’s debut album, Acts lends itself to being critiqued on its own merits.
The members’ insouciant approach is palpable on the resulting 12-song record, a loose and improvised feel running throughout it. One gets the impression the record is a document of three guys jamming in the studio, free from worry over meeting outsiders’ expectations. In short, the guys sound as though they are having fun. This is not to say, however, that the songs themselves are half-assed or self-indulgent. Being the veterans they are, even when Arthur, Ament, and Stuverud are enjoying themselves, their focus on songcraft is unshakable. The idea seems to be that if you’re coming together to make music for fun, that’s fine, but if you’re not going to make the best tunes you’re capable of in the process, there really is no point.
From the outset, opener and lead single “Modern Times” makes it clear there is no mistaking Acts for an Arthur solo album. The tune sets the aural template that defines most of the record — a crunchy, rollicking guitar riff, Ament’s signature thumping and sinuous bassline, galloping drums, and Arthur’s alternately dusty croon and falsetto. An urgency is conveyed in the surging rhythm and Arthur’s advocating for the individual to be resilient as the demands of modern life weigh heavy. “When we dream we still laugh with the stars anyway / It’s our time to come through this life until we pay”, he sings, a chorus both consoling and defiant. It is a suiting introductory single, but in truth, more than half of the tracks could serve this role, as each is decidedly different yet representative of RNDM overall.
In a perfect world, “The Disappearing Ones” would be a radio staple with its jangly, R.E.M.-style verses abruptly shifting to a surging chorus. The more subdued character study of “What You Can’t Control” offers reassurance amid a backdrop of swirling guitar effects and hammering percussion. The song sees Arthur describe the descent of a woman taking on more than she can handle, the music around him eliciting a sensation of release and supporting his admonition to move beyond “a past you can’t see through”. For the distinction of most compelling cut, though, “Walking Through New York” receives the honor. The music’s rumbling low-end, spinning melody and digital bleeps create a hallucinogenic, noir vibe, the paranoia of meandering aimlessly through a large city, strangers eying you from alleys and streetlights casting a harsh glow. “The blood beneath your feet / The downtown city street / Is swallowing you whole”, Arthur sings, summing up the anonymity and alienation of one adrift in an urban environment that cares nothing for you.
Throughout the album, Arthur’s lyrics are less refined and more freewheeling than those of his solo work, another effect of Acts’ ramshackle feel. He retains his trademark balance of playfulness and earnestness, though the scales are tipped more in the former’s favor here. He likewise still manages to express his almost childlike optimism, keeping an eye toward a better future to make up for a dark past. Arthur preaches resilience with the authority of one that has himself come through some pretty dire shit, and lines that could be clichéd in another’s voice are weirdly fitting. Take the chorus on “Hollow Girl”, for example: “Find a little bit of hope / When there ain’t none / Get your head out of the rope / From where you hung / When they’ve got you by the throat / Just give them love / And you’ll rise above”. On paper, it seems trite, but coming from Arthur, extra leeway is given. “New Tracks” may even top “Hollow Girl” with its sentimental romanticism (or romantic sentimentality), a veritable hymn designed to uplift, its refrain of “You’ll find / A way to make it out soon” about as direct as it gets.
Good as the record is, it’s not without its flaws. The punk scorcher “Look Out!” is a misstep, not adding anything to the mix and sounding tossed-off. “Throw You to the Pack”, another rocker, is a far superior take on the same idea of resisting those looking to drag you down. “Letting Go of Will”, a fine song in itself, is repetitive in its message due largely to its placement as the album’s penultimate track. By the time it arrives, we’ve heard its style of encouragement several times already. That the song is sandwiched between two of the record’s strongest pieces — the shuffling soul of “Williamsburg” and the Dylanesque closer “Cherries in the Snow” — keeps the album from ending on a near-perfect note.
These minor slights aside, Acts is a pleasant conundrum among 2012’s releases — an album made without concern for anything but the music itself by artists branching out and trying something new. In the future, the record should join the slender ranks of supergroup/side project albums that prove gems can arise every now and then.