The Saltshakers are from the Midwest and they certainly know the musical mystique of their home territory. From the Replacements to Hüsker Dü to Soul Asylum to Guided by Voices, the Midwest has spawned some of rock’s most gloriously shambolic bands, artists who weren’t ashamed to be from what is now referred to as “flyover country”—that big chunk of land in the middle of the States that isn’t as economically exploitable as the coasts and, therefore, is destined to suffer from a geographic inferiority complex. Like these legends, the Saltshakers know there’s a certain dilapidated splendor to the Midwest, a proud slouch that lends itself to tales of loss, disappointment, and self-destruction. And so, on the Milwaukee quartet’s latest release is a picture of a wash machine in a laundromat, a symbol of mundane mediocrity, caught in gorgeous desaturated hues. How’s that for lifting the ordinary to the mythic?
The Replacements specialized in this kind of fallen glory, and the Saltshakers list the Replacements as a primary influence. The connection, though loose, is apparent on A Beautiful Mess, a five-song EP and the band’s first proper studio recording. Like their idols, the Satlshakers are rough, raw, and unpolished. The guitars sound slightly out of tune, and the solos sound improvised and in danger of collapsing. When the solos do, somehow, crawl to a resolution, it feels like the band got away with something, pulling off what they never planned to do in the first place. In other words, this is rock ‘n’ roll in its primitive form—unpretentious and devoid of cutesy trappings. Yeah, you’ll get a melody, but not until it’s stomped on and scratched.
This approach both helps and hurts the Saltshakers’ sound. Opening track “Amplified” is essentially a punk song adorned with lead guitar. Beginning with repetitive chord strumming and feedback, the song is both frenetic and frayed, a caustic mix of barre chords, squealing fills, and an unsteady solo. Primary singer and songwriter Chad Curtis writes about timeless rock themes: “So you’re thinking what I’m thinking / I probably shouldn’t be drinking…” While the song is catchy—after repeated listens—it sounds a bit too self-consciously rough, like the band would settle for nothing less than sloppy. Moreover, the solo, while melodic in that one-string Edge fashion, seems disjointed from the rest of the song, crammed in the confines of the break because, well, rock songs are supposed to have solos.
Other tracks are a similar mix of catchiness and missteps, mainly because they adhere to a template. “Been Here Before” begins with repetitive chord strumming and feedback before launching into screaming and then a wobbling, high-pitched solo. Man, we have been here before—like three minutes ago. “Scream and Shout” is actually one of the more subdued songs, featuring a hooky bass line and a poppy refrain of “nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah… nah-nah-nah.” Unlike the aforementioned songs, this one sounds cohesive. Likewise, “Wall to Wall” feels like a more evolved song, relying on melodic guitar work and a steady beat rather than the brute force of frantic strumming.
A Beautiful Mess is a promising start from a young band with both a sense of history and insuppressible enthusiasm. This is the kind of band you want to see live—a band whose spontaneous energy is essential to truly connecting with their music. Unfortunately, such energy doesn’t always translate in the studio, where everything is plotted and mapped out. Ironically, with a little more polish, the Saltshakers might sound more beautifully dilapidated. For now, we’re left with just a semi-attractive mess.
// Notes from the Road
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