Last year, when Charlemagne were playing the North By Northeast festival, a music writer friend of mine convinced me that I didn’t want to cover the Minnesota-born, Brooklyn-based group. “Not Charlemagne,” she argued. “They’re so boring.” Boring seemed liked such a harsh way to describe any band. And I’d read reviews of Charlemagne’s first album, listened to their MySpace tracks, and thought it sounded exactly like the kind of thing I might be interested in. But for entirely stupid, silly and totally unprofessional reasons (mostly involving wanting to seem cool in front of a cute girl), I gave them a pass. I’ve been feeling guilty about it ever since, waiting for a chance to redeem myself. And now here it is. Finally. All I have to do is listen to We Can Build an Island, their second disc, give it a good review, and I’ll be able to call it even and forget about the whole thing.
And after having listened to the first track, it seems like that’s exactly what’ll happen. “Crushes” gets things off to a pretty decent start. It’s an up-tempo, little, country-tinged rocker than keeps things simple—and works. Carl Johns, the mastermind behind Charlemagne, uses just two chords, limits the drumbeat to a simple, four-on-the-floor rhythm, and switches back and forth between a fairly catchy chorus and a few snippets of noodling guitar. The album’s first two minutes and 38 seconds are enough to make you think that maybe Charlemagne might actually deserve the influences sited in their press material, landing somewhere in the neighbourhood of the Pixies and the Kinks, with maybe even a little Velvet Underground thrown in.
But, unfortunately, if you’re anything like me, that feeling is going to prove to be fleeting one. The next song, “Quivers on an Overpass”, immediately saps some of the momentum—it’s still up-beat, but loose and unfocused—and it just keeps slipping away from there. By the time you’re a few more tracks in, you’re getting the sense that you’ve just been listening to a few variations of the same song, each one slightly less interesting and energetic than the last. Try as you might to like them, Johns’ slightly twangy vocals start to grate just a little, and so do those off-kilter snippets of lead guitar. You’re not quite sure when it happened, exactly—none of the individual tracks stands out as being particularly lacklustre—but at some point all the goodwill you had built up during those first two and a half minutes of the record is gone.
It’s not that there’s really anything wrong with We Can Build an Island. At least, nothing that you can put your finger on. Johns is a perfectly competent songwriter. His third record is filled with perfectly decent alt.country.ish tunes. He and his backing band are perfectly adequate musicians. And so, as weak as it might sound, you’re left thinking that there’s just some spark, some intangible something that takes what could easily be just another band and makes them not just another band, but one of your favourites. And Charlemagne, on this record at least, doesn’t have it.
The thing is, that seems even harsher than just calling them boring in the first place.