Three kids get together to form a rock band; two of them play guitar and one plays drums. They sit around listening to U2 and the Beatles to learn a bit about music before laying down their own tracks, possibly with a cracked amp and a few broken guitar strings. Familiar?
Of course it is, because everybody knows somebody in a band, right? Usually the band is of the kind attempting to find someone, anyone who’ll listen to them play their umpteenth cover of “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”. Only when they get around to actually playing, there’s only two of them because the other one hasn’t shown up for practice and he has all the sheet music.
And, then there are those bands that, despite such difficult beginnings, get their shit together to really make it work. Penny Dreadful is one such band. And, because there are so many bands annoying the neighbors in suburban back streets across the world, it’s gotta feel like someone up there is smiling on you when it’s yours that’s getting some attention.
The Chicago-based trio is getting that attention thanks to their debut release, the five-song EP, Sanctuary—a neat collection of songs showcasing the best of the band’s talents, which is, primarily, its exceedingly strong grasp of rhythm and melody.
Opener, “Merry Andrew” with its four-word hook (“I’ll get it someday”) is testament to that grasp. As soon as singer, John Gidlund, opens his mouth, it’s obvious Penny Dreadful is not just another dime-in-the-bucket backyard band with nothing more to contribute to the music world than a whole lot of noise and rants about how screwy life is. The song is a glorious pop-rock effort and a perfect introduction to the band.
“Islets” is just as fancy, with a gorgeous opening riff, segueing into a roaring rock tune again lifted by Gidlund’s gravelly-cool Eddie Vedder-inspired (Who’s isn’t these days?) voice. The song is also filled with ideas of political unrest and stirred consciousness, featuring lines just smart enough not to come off like pretentious adolescent ramblings. “Their world’s insignificant / Unsound bent politicians / Too poised to offer their consent / Until their house is cursed with it”, sings Gidlund, without a hint of complacency.
“From Their Satellites” continues the socially-conscious theme with a damning opening verse delivering such fightin’ words as “Monitored phone conversation / Government’s a friend of the devil / White collar chained to the hand / Of the one in the middle says go fuck the liberals” and, somehow, maybe due to the incredible hold the boys have on their playing, the oft-used “government sucks” theme is given new life. In only five tracks, they manage to bring up such atrocities as abortion, homelessness and animal testing, questioning an ignorant President and other politicos as to how campaign funds are raised. Where this kind of grandstanding may otherwise become tedious, Penny Dreadful are just so damn good that you find yourself screaming, “Yeah! Fucking asshole government!” right along with them.
Not all of the tracks on Sanctuary are as straightforward as these, however. “Given On”, while brilliantly catchy, leads the charge of ambiguous lyrics floating randomly about the EP, with “Waiting for me to keep on just this once / Where to the place I should have gone / Where I’m coming dissolves in my hand / I’ll keep it together in the end”; and then there’s “Autumn sun and sidewalk dreams / Conversation with the trees / Tripping over kids on swings / Waves in walls that sway” from the title track. As completely fabulous as the music is, the vocals and the atmosphere, such ambiguity sometimes makes the lyrics interchangeable. Some of these moments are reminiscent of undergrad poetry at its shadiest, but the good thing about that is, over time, it will improve. The ideas don’t need to change a bit, only the structure, perhaps, to give the songs a little more definition.
But, this complaint is minor; the Penny Dreadful guys are extremely talented and Sanctuary is one hell of a class-A introduction. The guitars aren’t too heavy, the drums aren’t too overbearing, and they aren’t just making noise. They have something to say, and they’re saying it exactly the way they want to. I hope these boys are huge.