Country music, as much as any other musical genre, inspires polarized reactions. On one side of the argument are the ardent naysayers who find country’s trademark twang to be as grating as its political conservatism and therefore stay far away from the music. On the other side is a devoted fanbase that is enthralled by country’s attitude and honesty, and, frankly, is willing to put a boot in the ass of those who feel differently. Of course, such descriptions do not apply to all music fans, but by and large they are a fair general description of a type of music that, despite its prominence, is largely a love-it-or-hate-it affair.
If any band could build a bridge between the camps that love and hate country music, it is the Damnwells. The band hail from Brooklyn, New York, but their music frequently echoes the sounds of the heartland. The group introduced the world to their brand of rock with the 2003 debut Bastards of the Beat. The Damnwells are rooted in straightforward guitar pop-rock, but singer Alex Dezen displays his heart on the record sleeve with lyrics that resonate with the confessional honesty of a singer-songwriter. To focus on the rock aspects of the Damnwells, however, is to overlook the richness of their sound. Their sophomore album, Air Stereo, for instance, displays a heavy country influence. Songs like “Louisville” and “Sell the Lie” could probably find heavy rotation on the jukebox of a Tennessee bar. The trademark country twang is absent from Dezen’s vocals, but it occasionally surfaces on the album’s strings and guitars. Although the Damnwells will probably never provide audition fodder for Nashville Star, they are already writing music that would play well as a soundtrack to a melancholy evening under Nashville stars.
Air Stereo begins with “I’ve Got You”, a melancholy pop ballad filtered through piano, distorted bluesy guitar, plaintive pedal steel, and supporting vocal harmonies. All these instruments are ingredients for the rest of the album, but the most important ingredient is heart. On the first track, Dezen tells his love that she is all he needs to be satisfied. On later tracks, such as “I Am a Leaver” and “Heartbreaklist”, he can’t seem to find any contentment. A general sense of melancholy pervades the entire album, culminating in the 10-minute “God Bless America”, in which Dezen combines lyrical fragments from “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “America, the Beautiful” with his own weary, distrustful lines.
Musically, Air Stereo is fairly straightforward. The songs vary between subdued melodies over quietly strumming or arpeggiated guitars and forceful statements by the band in full force. Throughout, Dezen simultaneously conveys passion and exhaustion with his scratchy, fraying tenor, which seems likely to unravel at any moment. The accompaniment is mostly conventional rock fare, including clean and distorted guitars, straightforward drums, and bass, but the the band occasionally employs special sounds, such as the distant, echo-drenched piano in “Shiny Bruise”, to produce haunting effects.
Overall, Air Stereo is a strong album. It is strong in a musical sense because the arrangements are solid, the songs are compelling, and the dynamic shifts are effective. It is strong in a lyrical sense because Dezen writes revealing words which are both vulnerable and self-assured. For all its strengths, though, Air Stereo seems to be lacking something. The members of the Damnwells obviously have significant talent and remarkable chemistry, but their album seems to be missing a special ingredient that would transform their songs from being merely good to truly spectacular. This absence is not really a problem, though. The Damnwells have released only two full-length albums and hopefully have many more years to produce the great albums they seem capable of. For now, Air Stereo is definitely worth hearing, maybe worth purchasing, and certainly grounds for deciding to keep an ear out for the Damnwells’ future work.