On Braille, Calliope’s fourth album, the Michigan quartet tries to throw in a good bit of everything. There’s folky twang, melodic pop sheen, jazzy experimentation, indie rock sensibilities, and spacey production swim. Recorded in the band’s own home studio, it drifts about with sleepy indulgence and too much time on its hands.
Though well intended and well informed, it’s really an album of creative loose ends, just barely held together by lackluster songwriting and embarrassing lyrics. In other words, these guys appear to have tasteful enough influences, but they can’t quite seem to channel them into a worthy byproduct.
The opening “Detroit Girl” begins with a few contrived moments of spoken word, through which the song’s title character is introduced. From there, the song lapses into a Gomez-style stoner sing-along that tosses in unnecessary turntable work at the end. It’s just toothless and admittedly catchy enough to pass for something like Uncle Cracker; radio-ready fodder that waters down its seeming splicing of genres.
“Love=Energy” isn’t as terrible as its name foreshadows, although it’s only natural to cringe when Andy Dryer sings about robots, apes, Sasquatch, and UFOs all in the same breath. The lyrics are more silly than quirky, leading to a hapless chorus of “But I don’t know why my love is energy”. Still, Jason Lantrip manages to wrangle an impressive guitar solo.
“Bumblebee” is the best song here, ably aping the breathy jazz-flecked pop of The Sea and Cake, if submerging it in muddled effects. Dryer’s lyrics aren’t so weak as elsewhere on Braille, and there’s a certain charm to it. “Peppercorn” repeats the same tricks, only adding clammy atmosphere and sparse horn arrangements. Dryer still comes off as a second-rate Sam Prekop, though.
The following “Newscast” opens with the cheesy line, “I saw you die on the TV screen / It wasn’t real because it was just TV”, before falling into an opaque narrative about policemen’s balls and murder scenes, laden with dollar-store keyboard effects. Dryer seems to be questioning the nature of media, but he soon emerges empty-handed. “Lilac” is an overly sensitive ballad, half-asleep and in love with the idea of being in love.
“Wrong Things” affects a slight spaghetti western vibe, but is ruined by yet another string of awful lyrics—“So put on your gloves and let’s go / I’m gonna give ‘em a show / I’m gonna tell the whole world it was you / Who did all of the wrong things / All of the wrong things / Maybe my way isn’t right / But that’s how we’re ending tonight / So it goes”. On most of these songs, Dryer rhymes too easily and remains stuck on sappy one-liners.
“Sassafras” boasts sweetly jangled hooks, and really, it’s not as flawed as some songs on Braille. Like “Bumblebee” and “Peppercorn”, it readily recalls The Sea and Cake, but by this point, that’s better than anything else Calliope can muster. It closes after three minutes in a fit of looped drumming.
Next is “Love is Gonna Get You”, arguably the album’s lowest point. It opens, “I’m so mixed up / crazy for you” and continues that way, all sappy first-person narrative. “I’m a candle and both ends are lit” is a bad enough line, but then comes the chorus—“I just had my first heart attack / The pain is deep and I think it’s coming back / I’m just a fool / I just felt back in love again / The pain is real and I hope that it never ends”. That it’s watery modern rock parading as Chicago post-rock simply adds insult to injury.
The wistful “Some Time” is still cheesy but far less excruciating, while “Take My Body Home” rakes through the muck of shoegaze worship for too long, equal parts lazy and hazy. After the listed songs, Braille features an alternate version of “Love=Energy” that doesn’t sound much different than the earlier incarnation and then a ponderous extra track book-ended with snippets of studio dialogue. Both feel tacked on, closing the album with a bitter aftertaste.
Calliope apparently received good press for their first three albums (all on Thick), and while they are certainly not the worst band out there, the burden of Andy Dryer’s grating lyrics and all those murky effects weighs heavily on the band. With some sharper songwriting and less indulgent production, Braille could have been enjoyable. But for a band named after the Muse of eloquence and epic poetry (and also a steam organ), Calliope currently isn’t very eloquent or poetic at all.