Through the course of the eleven songs on Defrocked And Kicking The Habit, Soltero’s Tim Howard sets out to establish his place as the kind of singer/ songwriter that makes you prick up your ears and pay closer attention. He pulls off the neat feat of making his I’s and You’s and Me’s large; the listener connects them with their own. When he sings about a relationship problem, you might be reminded of one of yours. His stress and confusion and feelings of love ring true. It’s a tough but necessary step that Howard makes and as a result his personal songs rarely seem self-centered. You may even find yourself laughing with recognition at some of the scenes that are played out. It’s a trick that gets pulled off nowadays by bands like Clem Snide or songwriters like Ron Sexsmith. Howard lays a good groundwork for his band and they have produced a pretty good album to boot.
This is particularly worth mentioning in the case of Soltero because of the relative age of the group, this is only their second release following 2001’s Science Will Figure You Out, and because they are willing to walk so many fine lines while displaying a kind of ambition and confidence. Even when ideas aren’t working, there’s a sort of excitement that comes across when you know a band is trying. When the songs come together, they incorporate humor without being cute. They use word play without seeming overly clever. They can dig into personal or emotional territory and not feel overdone. Throughout, it’s all executed with a surprising level of assuredness and thoughtfulness that gives the songs an air of sturdiness that is palpable early on and makes you willing to stay with the disc.
As a lyricist, Howard exercises a keen eye for the details that can make-up relationships and the pointed pieces of conversation that can exist between couples. On “Vaporetto” it’s the lover who flatly states, “Don’t be selfish, it doesn’t help me / Don’t almost buy me presents / Don’t almost leave a message”. On “The Moment That You Said Yes”, it’s the singer wondering, “Maybe you will be happy for the first time in your whole life / You will be fast asleep next to me / You will be fast asleep in my bed ‘till eleven”. On “Digging”, it’s the exhausted boyfriend remarking, “They’re digging in Allston and she works in the morning / She’ll probably kill me and leave all the lights on / I tell her I’m sorry, she says ‘Yeah, you should be’”. With all of this, there’s a certain level of emotional buy-in that you need to commit to for the album to really have an impact, otherwise it might be dismissed as whiny musings on the failures of date night. Still, there’s an undeniable element present in the music that makes it all seem a bit more significant than that, no matter how quickly you may be willing to discount it.
Sparse in instrumentation, many of the songs consist of Howard’s voice, which is as much croak as most would-be alt-country singers are twang, and guitar with little else. Others are fleshed out with stately but sparse horn parts and low-key background sounds, all of which sound rich with space. There’s an off-the-cuff kind of feel to most of the playing that is at times endearing and occasionally repetitive. At their catchiest, particularly “Fight Song for True Love” which chronicles an outspoken date giving a tongue lashing to Boston police officers, the band can be light on their feet. On “Autobahn” (“Give me things that never slow down”) and “The Moment You Said Yes”, the band builds up the songs and then strips them back down with a subtle efficiency. At other times, the songs can start to bog down a bit under their own weight. There’s a kind of hangdog persona that plays throughout most of the songs and it’s one of the only valid criticisms that I’ve heard of the album. It can get to be a bit much at points, as if the role is overplayed to the extreme, but as a whole the band is able to make the album swim. It’s a tenuous balance, but the willingness and ability that Soltero show in walking it marks them as worth watching.