There is nothing high strung about the High Strung. The quartet-cum-trio of Chad Stocker, Derek Berk, and Josh Malerman (now without Mark Owen) have returned with the follow-up to 2003’s highly critically acclaimed record These Are Good Times, which had them being compared from every credible pop band of recent and not-so recent memory: The Kinks, Zombies, Grandaddy, Built to Spill, and Teenage Fanclub. And you will rarely be so attracted to an album within the first 10 seconds.
Led by “Never Saw It as Union”, Malerman’s lead vocals chime in only after a great if simple guitar riff and backbeat. Part summery pop and part garage rock, the High Strung find the perfect balance between both as Berk does a great job keeping it all together and providing fantastic drum fills. This classic pure rock sound might have resulted from the band returning to Detroit guru Jim Diamond’s studio to record the album, but even Diamond couldn’t do a lot if the group didn’t have that “it” factor. And The High Strung do. Boy, do they… packing about two or three great ideas into less than two minutes of music without the flow suffering one iota.
From there, the group moves into “Truce”, a quasi-country-meets-psychedelic rock flavor that brings to mind a cross between Wilco and Brian Jonestown Massacre, with a tight but infectious melody and great harmonies sounding a little bit like Mr. White of that vanilla-colored stripes duo. Again, you will find yourself hitting replay before this track is halfway over for a few reasons, the first being you don’t want it to end and the second being how rarely something so lovely and adorable comes across your ears. The band’s ability to make each song evolve into two or three different style without any sort of problem is another asset. “Truce” even has a slight rave-up, but returns to the melody with sickening precision. From there you have to endure another strong gem that sounds new and quite old at the same time, aptly titled “Here It Comes Again”, which could be mistaken for Tom Petty’s early band Mudcrutch.
You won’t find a stronger four-set opening in 2005, especially with the sugar-coated, sing-along, Sloan-ish feeling one gets listening to the driving, high-energy “A Real Meal Ticket” with its party, clap, and sing-along atmosphere. While not dismissing the contribution Owen gave to the group, even he would be hard pressed to argue that the album that was scrapped while the High Strung was a quartet even came close to what is here on this record. The beauty continues on the mid-tempo and delectable “N Over C”—fine power pop with a moody underbelly that relies on the trio working in unison to fuel this nugget from start to fantastic finish.
Although “The Luck You Got” doesn’t quite match up to several of the other songs, the band reaches another high point with the waltz-like old school rock tune “Seems It’s One Thing”, which makes you want to sway back and forth in your car or in your seat. They never move out of this style, despite building the song with each verse, again with Berk doing double and sometimes triple time in short but powerful spurts. It’s a real nice tune that sounds like a distant cousin of Aerosmith’s “Cryin’”. Fortunately, they shake off the dreamy cobwebs and get back to business on the big and bombastic-tastic “Deck the Boy”, with a sinewy guitar riff and an ascending/descending bass line as Malerman sings about “freaking out”.
I could go on and on verbally drooling over this record, with other songs like “On Your Feet” being barebones pop jewel that sounds so easy you wonder why so few pull this off so well. Ditto for “Anything Goes”, which brings to mind Guided by Voices with an axe to grind. Needless to say, this album is one of the finest made this year without any question. I need a cigarette….