When I first discovered punk rock as an awkward teenage kid, there would be no limit to the shows I would attend. In the summer, when it seemed every punk rock group piled into a van and hit the open road, I would be at almost every show that happened in my town. It became epidemic at one point, as I found myself at concerts sometimes three times a week. I would arrive early to make sure I caught all the bands, fearing that if I showed up late I would miss something great (a lesson I learned the hard way when I decided to skip a Regulator Watts performance). A combination of tolerance and patience sustained my attendance at shows, as in retrospect, I can honestly say the majority of the punk and hardcore bands I witnessed in my youth were mediocre to awful. There are only a handful of those bands I listened to then that I can throw on my record player now and really enjoy. My older, more cynical ears demand a lot more from hardcore or punk bands to hold my interest.
When I first put on Small Brown Bike‘s The River Bed, it was like being transported back to my formative early punk rock listening years. Small Brown Bike’s youth and energy positively bubbled out of my stereo speakers. Though the band can be easily classified as emo, Small Brown Bike cover this territory with a ferocity and edginess that is lacking in many of the groups that dominate the scene. The vocals, while strong, are tastefully kept down in the mix as clean and distorted guitars are perfectly dynamic. While this is nothing particularly new to the genre, it is a muscular exercise in emo that perked up the ears of this weary listener.
Swaggering confidently, “Deconstruct Rebuild” kicks off The River Bed. The song isn’t anything particularly special until the astonishing chorus, which finds guitarists Mike Reed and Travis Dopp appropriating the pick slides from the Swing Kids’ “El Camino Car Crash”, slowing them down and making them thicker and bolder. “A Scream in Silence” finds the guitarists again flexing their creative muscle. There is a magnificent breakdown that is reminiscent the Strokes’ muted, plucked guitars in the pre-chorus of “Automatic Stop”, but sped up and flailed with reckless abandon.
“Sincerely Yours” and “The Outline of Your Hand Remains in My Hand” are unfortunate explorations of atmospheric and sensitive songwriting. The former is driven by an amateurish, uninspired, darkly-plucked guitar line before climaxing predictably with yelled vocals and crunching guitars during the last minute of the song. The latter begins with unnecessary keyboard flourishes before moving into emotional territory better occupied by the Deftones or Staind.
What keeps The River Bed from being a recommended listen are the confessional, diary style lyrics that are downright embarrassing. Sure to find a place among the broken hearts of teenage boys everywhere, Small Brown Bike’s lyrics are mundane and emotionally shallow. “I came to see you and talk about how things have been / I can’t keep fighting and risk all the things we have left”, the boys declare on “Safe in Sound”. “A Declaration of Sorts” confidently states, “This is the last time that I feel lonely and sorry for myself”, though even a casual listen to The River Bed and the listener will know that this is far from true.
Released in September of this year, Small Brown Bike announced in November that they are breaking up. Though confidently and sometimes brilliantly played, The River Bed amounts to little more than an above average exercise in edgy emo. The last remaining recorded document by this popular band is adequate but not essential.