There’s only one way that Mellowdrone isn’t a terrible band name, and that’s if it happens to be in the vein of Low, Indigo Girls or Gangsta Boo, where it does the heavy lifting for critics looking to describe their sound. It actually works for the leadoff track on Box, as “C’mon Try a Little Bit” is a shoegaze teaser; a slow, brooding mix of distant vocal echoes, rumbling toms and bulbous bass. After that, Box isn’t Loveless, so much as it is loveless, lacking tension or creative spark, ignoring the gospel of Steven Malkmus that you gotta pay your dues before you pay the rent. It doesn’t sound anything like Toto (well, except for the cheeky hired gun soloing in “Oh My”), but I’ll be damned if this isn’t corporate L.A. rock.
It’s easy to criticize the majors for snapping up the hopelessly derivative likes of Keane and The Bravery, but at least you can see it from the label’s perspective. Mellowdrone is hooked up with the Columbia subsidiary Red Ink, and I have no idea why. Not because they’re particularly inept; if anything, Mellowdrone sounds too proficient. It’s just difficult to imagine that Box could end up being an album people laugh at, cry with or even care about. The lack of passion on Box manifests itself with a pervasive sense of detachment and cynicism, as best illustrated by song titles like “Beautiful Day”, “Fuck It Man”, “And Repeat” and “Whatever the Deal”. And as to be expected from an album that’s paradoxically inspired by indifference, most of Box just kinda happens, neither good enough or bad enough to really be noticed.
After the red herring of “C’mon Try a Little Bit”, Mellowdrone putter around for 12 cuts of nearly uniform length in the no-man’s land between art and commerce, recalling prefab and functionally-named relics from the Buzz Bin such as Sponge, Ours, Flys, Failure and Wax that failed to move units or critics in any significant way. The bigger problem is that Mellowdrone is wed to verses and choruses and they don’t even have a “Molly”, “Sometimes”, or “Got You Where I Want You” in their quiver to make laptop speakers bump. It’s like latter-day Cecil Fielder; Mellowdrone swings for the fences every time, but they’re wheezing by the time they round first. As to be expected from a band this green, Mellowdrone know what a hit sounds like, but they’re hesitant to embrace one right under their nose. “Oh My” goes for glowstick dance rock, but ends up with half-speed Andrew W.K. “Fashionably Uninvited” has a synthy swing and a singsong cadence that’s subtly ingratiating, but it’s cheapened by the power saw chords in its aimless chorus. “Fuck It Man” is ashamed of being the most anthemic song on Box; first, there’s that self-sabotaging title and it snuffs out the hook when it sounds like it could explode.
While the band makes liberal use of ProTools trickery, they’re not a studio band either. Trapped in a midtempo grid that’s the work of either an uncreative drummer or a lazy programmer, Box never develops a sense of dynamics that goes beyond making the chorus loud. Songs are over and underthought at the same time, tricked out like a child’s Activity Center, where intermittent button pressing can trigger incongruous sound effects (modulated bass, dinky keys, dot pixel guitar distortion) to stave off boredom. They’re distinguished somewhat by the vocals of Jonathan Bates, which sort of sound like Calla without the sex or mystery—which is to say, it’s just difficult to hear him. Not that the lyrics invite close listening; he leans on profanity that pops up with the annoying randomness of teenage acne and lines like “fuck it man, you gotta get out while you can” and “it’s a beautiful day” (in two different songs). But while those are caked with stale sarcasm, it’s better than the painfully straight-faced chorus of “Madison”: “Whatever those girls at school did say don’t believe them / They’re just jealous of your awkward ways,” and thereafter, adopting a choked wail that sounds like Chris Cornell at his most herniated, “rush right past them in the hallllll!!!!!!!!”
It’s easy to assume that major labels can engineer hit singles and platinum albums on cue, but the sad reality is that the record industry is set up so one Eminem blockbuster picks up the tab for nine other duds like Box that fail to recoup. Check out the roster on your favorite label’s website, and you’ll find literally dozens of bands caught up in corporate red tape that you’ve never heard of and never will. In your weaker moments, you’ll just hope an A&R man’s child didn’t go without supper because someone their dad inked to a deal never even got their album out.
But in the end, maybe I was wrong and Mellowdrone is an appropriate name. Can’t you imagine TV writers coming up with something like that if they needed a fake band name for an episode? Wouldn’t “that was the new one from Mellowdrone” sound pretty good coming from a Best Buy voiceover? That’s why Mellowdrone makes sense; the majority of Box sounds like the kind of stuff you dutifully ignore while shopping for high-end electronics.