San Francisco’s The Stratford 4, like their California cohorts Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, heavily base their sound on late ‘80s postpunk. However, unlike BRMC’s excellent take on the fuzzed-out guitars of the Jesus & Mary Chain, The Stratford 4, who are led by former BRMC band member Chris Streng, derive much of their sound from the work of “shoegazer” pioneers My Bloody Valentine. Their debut album, The Revolt Against Tired Noises, was at times an effective blend of My Bloody Valentine’s droning, soaring, effects-laden guitar work, as well as other styles such as The Smiths and the light folk of Belle & Sebastian, making for a very likeable CD. Like BRMC did on their own debut record, The Stratford 4 were on the verge of taking an old formula and tweaking it enough to create an original sound of their own. It wasn’t as solid an album as BRMC’s, but it was promising. So what the heck happened between then and now?
Despite some near-brilliant flashes, Love & Distortion, The Stratford 4’s new album, as a whole, fails to live up to any high hopes that fans of the band might have had. It seems sloppy, it has some disappointingly one-dimensional album production, and even worse, it lacks the pop sense that The Revolt Against Tired Noises had in spades. Although the band still alternates between louder tracks and more sensitive, lighter fare, the majority of the album is centered around more of those My Bloody Valentine-style, atmospheric drones of guitars. Only instead of wowing us with layers and layers of swirling guitars, the album sounds incredibly weak; you want the guitars to sweep you away, but the sound is just too lightweight to handle the load, and sadly becomes 55 minutes of somnambulistic self-indulgence.
This is the kind of album that you really want to like, and it does have its moments. “Where the Ocean Meets the Eye”, with its hypnotic pace, waves of guitars, and Streng’s introspective lyrics, is a competent re-hash of all the best qualities of shoegazer music, as is “The Simple Things Are Taking Over”, despite some rather awful lyrics by the lyrically-challenged Streng: “Have you ever had a single moment where everything you feel seem dull/The birds and the bees are in the trees/It’s enough to bring you to your knees.”
The album starts to gain momentum midway through. The lengthy, hilarious, Ride-meets-Pavement sounding “Telephone”, is a real gem, as Streng dryly sings about phone calls with his advice-giving mother, who happens to have led a wilder life than her son (“I heard her smile at the end of the line/She said, ‘Son, you’re gonna be just fine’ . . . When I was 22/I was a lot like you/I was high every night”). It’s a marvelous song, but when Streng goes off during one verse, name-checking bands he likes (“Spacemen 3, Primal Scream and T Rex/Belle & Sebastian and the Burning Men”), he starts to sound like a songwriter who’s plum out of ideas. The sleepy ballad “Tonight Would Be Alright” is the album’s strongest track, as Streng shares vocal duties with drummer Andrea Caturegli; after all of Streng’s lugubrious, indifferent singing, it’s a relief to hear Caturegli’s sweet voice for a change. “The Story is Over” has the band playing like they’re awake for once, and the drumming is suddenly insistent, the guitar playing by Streng and Jake Hosek sounding energetic, and Streng actually singing with something resembling passion for once, as he croons, “You could be possessed/But you’re so hard to keep/And if I saw some royalties/Would that make you my queen?”
The rest of Love & Distortion, though, disappoints. The album sounds like a demo recording, the songs resembling works-in-progress. The more pop-oriented songs like “She Married the Birds”, “12 Months”, and “Kleptophilia”, are adequate enough, but pale in comparison to the band’s earlier songs, such as “Hydroplane” and “Rebecca”. Streng, with his combination of Steven Malkmus-style inflections and pseudo-British affectations, grows more tiresome the longer the album plays, and by the time you get to the lengthy final two songs, “Tiger Girl” and “Swim Into It”, you just want to go back to “Tonight Would Be Alright” again, and hit the repeat button. This type of music always sounds best with layers of pretty female vocals, as albums by My Bloody Valentine and Lush attest, and it’s too bad The Stratford 4 don’t employ this strategy more often.
Most annoyingly, the album’s production is almost too muddy to bear. Even more surprising is that Chris Walla (from Death Cab For Cutie) is the producer; his work on Hot Hot Heat’s recent Make Up the Breakdown is outstanding, more thunderous and crisp. Love & Distortion sounds like it was recorded in a toilet. Drums are pushed back in the mix, guitars reverberate emptily (with minimal overdubs), and the bass, by Sheetal Singh, has no weight to it. Music this drowsy needs layers of guitars to give the recording some life; this, though, just sounds hollow.
Whether this is all that The Stratford 4 has to offer remains to be seen. With the album’s raw sound, it shows how bland a band they can be at times, and it exposes Streng’s songwriting as being somewhat weak. Half of the songs on Love & Distortion live up to the potential that the band showed on their first album, and you want them to just take the rest of this album to the next level, but everything just winds up sputtering in the end. Someone should hand this record back to the band, tell them to do it over, and get back to us when they get it right. There’s a line in “Telephone” that goes, “I’ll say it again though I’ve said it before/There’s more to this life than The Stratford 4.” It disappoints me to say that I have to agree.