In three words: Coldplay with crank. That’s how one would describe Ohio’s own Lovedrug. If a few more words had to be added, you could include that lead singer Michael Shepard sounds almost exactly like the guy from Turin Brakes, that the band sounds like it should be from Britain, or that almost every song off the latest album—Everything Starts Where It Ends—has the potential to be a rock-radio smash. For a group that so blatantly cops styles from other (and more popular) bands, it’s pretty amazing to hear a record that covers just about every style in the American modern rock canon, while still remaining so fundamentally distinctive.
None of this would work if it weren’t for Lovedrug being so headstrong to begin with. The teaser EP that followed this album showed the band making a ballsy move by daring to cover Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box” on piano—a move that might work for Tori Amos, but not a relatively-obscure pop-rock group from America’s Midwest. Yet, against all odds, it made it sound good, retaining the catharsis, while making Shepard’s high-tenor vocal quiver the centerpiece to a cover that, if anything, is respectful to the original in both style and spirit. So the band also can’t be faulted for citing Coldplay as part of its common lineage, as it knows where that group made mistakes, and thusly willingly avoids them. Admittedly, Lovedrug can still fall victim to Coldplay’s greatest weakness (the generic ballad, as best evidenced here with “Thieving”), but can also inherit many strengths as well.
If we play the big Game of Rock Lineage, starting off with Radiohead spawning derivative twin children (Coldplay, the ballad side and Muse, the rock side) then it’s not so much of a stretch to hear the influence of OK Computer creep into places like Everything’s opening epic “Happy Apple Poison”, with equal parts deprecating acoustic ballad and stadium-rocking guitar chorus. It’s the kind of song that would sound better in front of 10,000 people, but this would also imply that the band would be popular as well. The gears switch to the very Muse-like “Pushing the Shine” immediately after, another adrenaline-pumper that shows Lovedrug exploring a darker side that wasn’t immediately apparent off its first album. If it were incapable of ballads, then it’s not hard to imagine hearing “American Swimming Lesson” playing over the credits for the next Saw movie. This is in sharp contrast to “Castling”, which would be heard over the credits of the latest high school rom-com that comes out (or fan-created O.C. video).
“I never got to be a man at all,” Shepard bemoans during “Casino Clouds”, showing yet another hindrance that slows the band down; (in this case being cliché-book lyrics). Though the occasional lyrical oddity appears during the epic closing title track (“Don’t go home / It’s tip-toe time”), the track is fittingly epic and makes the fullest use of its seven-plus minutes. Yet Lovedrug doesn’t ever really need to go full on epic; just listening to lead single “Ghost By Your Side” is enough. It’s a great song with one of those gut-punching, awe-inspiring choruses that only the best of rock quartets can pull off these days. The brief and fleeting “Dancing” is quite lovely, yet it falls in the shadow of “Salt of the Earth”, a harrowing, dark, and pounding number that actually uses the rattle of chains as its beat, over which the band lays a pounding bass-heavy piano, a feather-light guitar-and-string chorus, and just an overall cinematic sense of dynamics that is sorely missing from most alt-rock bands these days. It fights for position as highlight of the album, but thankfully, it’s one of many to choose from.
A music critic is always hard-pressed to bring the innovative to light, while shunning the derivative, but it gets really tricky when a band that is almost entirely derivative just manages to do something that thousands of sound-alikes aren’t able to pull off: make quality songs. Even with the occasional misstep, Everything Starts Where It Ends is a labor of love and passion, an aspect that comes searing through each of its tracks. Hooks of this towering experimentalism are so rarely pulled off successfully. This album won’t change your life, but for simply being a rock album, it’s a surprising joy.