When Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s Call Me Lightning dropped their debut album The Trouble We’re In three years ago, it was a breath of fresh air. Arriving by surprise on Revelation Records label, usually home to more thuggish brands of punk rock, Call Me Lightning stood out from their labelmates with an inspired, if at times inconsistent, style of streamlined post-punk. Three years have since passed, and for their sophomore effort Call Me Lightning have found a more likeminded label in Frenchkiss Records. Home to similarly spazzy outfits like Les Savvy Fav and Thunderbirds Are Now!, Call Me Lightning suddenly seem far less impressive.
To be fair, it isn’t just how they compare to their contemporaries but simply, the songs on Soft Skeleton are largely lifeless. The palpable ass-kicking energy that, even on the lesser tracks, was felt throughout their debut is replaced here by a workmanlike efficiency that tosses aside emotion in a hurry to get to the end of each song. It’s a bizarre turnaround for a group that previously succeeded with songs that had both trim running times and explosive performances. Though the eleven track album comes in at a tight thirty-six minutes, it feels excessively long.
Even more confounding is that all the ingredients for a thorough, musical whooping are present. Recorded at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio with additional work at Studio Greg Studios II and Headache House, the album retains Albini’s trademark precision approach. The drums are huge, the guitars nimble and bass ready to rupture a spleen, but atmosphere doesn’t make great songs. The problem is that Soft Skeletons feels comprised of Jesus Lizard B-sides. Each song is more or less the same, guided by Nathan Lilley’s curiously forgettable licks, while drummer Shane Hochstetler and bassist Bill Kutsch acts as anchors. Where Hotchstetler could be felt all over The Trouble We’re In he is practically a metronome here. If there is a way to make post-punk sound bland, Call Me Lightning have found it with much of Soft Skeletons. Tracks that start with fire in the gut like “Billion Eyes” don’t take too long in settling back into the band’s standard rut, and Lilley’s faux-stuttering on “Shook House Shakedown” is tired. Oddly enough, it’s the disc’s longest track (also the title track) that is the disc’s one redeeming factor. Here the band is finally unhinged from the formula. Hotchstetler unleashes on his kit, Kutsch’s bass line is fit for a car chase and Lilley seems to finally believe what he’s wailing. But it’s the overall song structure that is impressive. Packed with great riffs, the group take it one step further in patiently uncoiling the fury guiding the listener on a journey through some tension filled valleys and absolutely triumphant peaks.
If only the rest of the disc were this exciting. Soft Skeletons isn’t a bad album, but one mired in routine, with each song hitting the standard checklist of post-punk components and then collapsing into it’s standard three-minute running time. As the title track proves, Call Me Lightning are more than capable of breaking the mold, but whether or not they are willing to push themselves remains to be seen.