Love Ain’t a Cliché
(Hayden’s Ferry) 21 January 2003 Available as import
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Judging by the front and back cover and liner notes, Love Ain’t a Cliché is a 13-track sugarcoated paean to gazing longingly into a lover’s eyes and half-whispered sweet nothings, stolen kisses and all that sappy stuff. After all, the album’s “ingredients” lists the tracks as well as the likes of “sugar”, “corn syrup”, and “yellow #5”. Less subtle is the lyrics page with features puppies, a couple taking in a sunset, clinking champagne glasses and a field of daisies. To the point, it’s all ironic. One spin through Love Ain’t a Cliché, and Israel’s point becomes obvious: Love ain’t a cliché, because love hurts too damn much to be one. And no amount of pithy candy hearts can change that fact.
But how do Dan Israel and his bandmates—bassist Kris Bowring and drummer David Russ—expound upon this theory? With a collection of straight-ahead roots rockers, of course. Even the most novice ears will hear the traces of Tom Petty and John Hiatt in Israel’s agreeably raspy voice. (Why is it that guys who sound like that end up singing roots rock? Discuss amongst yourselves.) With the exception of an occasional keyboard and a wayward trumpet, Love Ain’t a Cliché is chockablock with no-frills rock music. “Don’t Feel Like Laughing” lays it out early on as Israel’s and guest guitarist Randy Casey’s guitars battle each other while Israel notes “[There’s] no concern that fuels my fire / Quite like the struggles of you and me”.
Israel can turn a good phrase regardless of whether the song is an uptempo rocker (most of the songs) or on the downbeat side. “Friend in This Town” (as in “no one wants to be your ...”) sports one of the truest aphorisms I’ve heard all year: “Losing’s worse when so many winners suck”. Amen, brother.
Even if Israel (or at least Israel-the-narrator) is miserable/lonely/pining, the music doesn’t suffer for it. “Jump through the Rings” shows a folksy side of the band in a melody that calls to mind, of all things, the Lemonheads’ “My Drug Buddy”. “Killing Time” wouldn’t sound out of place on a John Hiatt album, while “Dark Corner” hides its battle with depression under a bounding bass and a barrelhouse piano. Not everyone can pull off that kind of disconnect between music and lyrics, especially on every track on an album. But when the tunes are as catchy and the guitar work as solid as it is on Love Ain’t a Cliché (and Israel can grind an axe with the best of ‘em), it all works together. Somewhere, Marshall McLuhan is blaring this album on a deserted stretch of highway, arguing with himself about the medium and the message. But I digress.
Of course, the music doesn’t always work. Russ’ static-ed out drumbeat on “Sandbags” sinks one of the album’s weakest tracks, and the Mariachi-inflected trumpet on “Never-ending Circles” is just a bit too distracting for its own good. Fortunately, Israel’s guitar solos make every song palatable.
But on the whole, there’s more winners than losers on Love Ain’t a Cliché (and they’re not winners that suck, to recall Israel’s contention). It does my heart good to hear an unpretentious-sounding roots rock record. The Cultivators know from whence they came; Love Ain’t a Cliché‘s liner notes thank the Traveling Wilburys and the Honeydogs. And while they may never transcend a “Followers” link at Tom Petty’s Allmusic.com entry or a “Customers who bought Hollywood Town Hall also bought” link at Amazon.com (neither of which they actually have, but you see where I’m coming from), they’ve got the chops and the heart, and there’s plenty of people out there who call roots rock home. And that’s that’s the un-sugar coated truth.