The Brakes are an astonishingly typical bar band. On almost every side they resemble one of those quasi-successful regional acts that you’ve undoubtedly encountered more times than you can count. The thing is, though, it’s not that this Philadelphia quintet is a bad band. Their musicianship is certainly praiseworthy, even flawless. The trouble with their new live record, Tale of Two Cities, is the crushing mediocrity of its songs. Over the course of 12 tracks with titles like “Big Money”, “Danger Blues”, and “Who Am I To Be”, singer and principal songwriter Zach Djanikian’s tunes soar to new dizzying pinnacles of innocuousness.
Opener “Into the Ground”, with its staccato piano rhythm that recalls Wilco’s classic “Why Would You Wanna Live?”, at first seems interesting enough, but ultimately never steps up to the plate with anything remotely ear-catching. Elsewhere, “Big Money” is a fist-pounder that apes Allman Brothers-esque guitar playing but, like so many of the other songs in this set, demands a check in the “miss” column. Further on, “Danger Blues” reveals itself to be an anemic attempt at hard-edged roadhouse blues. Clearly, the Brakes have not set out to reinvent much of anything—and that’s fine—but their “Wallflowers-lite” sound really doesn’t pack enough of a punch to warrant forty-five minutes of anyone’s time.
Besides the songwriting, the other major shortcoming of Cities is that it sounds too much like the type of places where it was recorded. This is, of course, all well and good for documentary purposes, but I find it hard to believe that many people are interested in hearing a sonic map of the Knitting Factory (a small and decidedly unromantic venue in New York’s Lower East Side). For a bar band like the Brakes, though, a live album seems to have been the right decision. Such a record plays to the group’s strengths: tight vocal harmonies, note-perfect (if uninspired) guitar playing, and big wet drum fills with lots of tom. These strengths, however, are only the means for great music, and unfortunately, the Brakes never really near that end.
Overall, the impression one comes away with is one of a permeating blandness. The music here is highly polished but lacks any real edge. Frustratingly, tunes like “Big Money” and “Danger Blues” sound sophomoric and are riddled with various cliché touches. While there is an impulse to applaud the band for their indisputable raw talent, the meat of this album is thoroughly unsavory.
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