The most impressive thing about Cartel’s The Ransom EP is the artwork by Hudson Phillips. The cover is bare, without even the name of the band on it, and features what could be a crime scene photo of a suitcase full of money and a gun. Opening the inside panels, we find the evidence of a police team hard at work, with more crime photos, an ashtray, blood spatters, bullets, scissors, and a glass of whiskey (neat, of course). It’s an evocative, creative package that if anything makes the music on The Ransom EP that much more disappointing.
Cartel, for all its dangerous design, is yet another run of the mill emo band. The seven songs on this EP provide nothing worthy of hard drinking, dripping blood, or chain-smoked cigarettes hinted at in the CD case. I think it’s safe to say that I won’t be seeing Cartel in a police lineup anytime soon. The design seems to be trying to give Cartel an edginess it clearly doesn’t possess, as each tune predictably rises and falls in the right places with performances that are competent but hardly memorable.
The last place I looked for any hint of menace were in the lyrics of singer Will Pugh, and sadly I was disappointed again. Pugh waxes poetic like so many before him on Broken Hearts, The Way Things Used to Be, and Living Life to the Fullest. How dull. Even the songs with potentially thrilling titles like the title track and “Fiend” disappoint with trite lyrics like: “Word’s out I’m not the man I used to be / You knew it all along that I felt this way / I put it in this song” and “I hear that you’re a fiend / You love and let nobody know where you go / Why didn’t you come back to me / I’ll give you whatever you want”. Yikes. This stuff won’t even get them thrown into juvenile hall.
The etymology of the word “cartel” derives partially from the French word meaning “a letter of defiance”. The band Cartel is hardly the sort of rebellious band its name suggests. Instead, Cartel, join many other similarly styled bands that comprise a large niche in the punk rock world that is in need of a major sea change. The time is ripe for a band to emerge that will fundamentally change this genre and breathe fresh life and vigor into it. Cartel, for now, is swimming in the same waters as a legion of other groups, feeding off the same chord progressions and lyric booklets, waiting for something to change, rather than making it happen.