Cincinnati has always been like a second home to me. As a kid, I spent a number of summers there, enjoying what the city had to offer in contrast to my pleasant, small town upbringing. Lots of hustle and bustle, interesting people, and always something to see. The city and its surrounding areas that played host to a myriad of pop culture classics like Skyline chili, LaRosa’s pizza, Uncle Al (a kids’ morning TV show that worked in a similar vein as Bozo the Clown, but was a lot cooler thanks to Al’s partner Captain Wendy) Al Shottlekotte and the channel 9 news, WLW, WKRC, and yes, of course, the Big Red Machine. A city that, for all of its conservatism, had an incredibly diverse and wonderful metropolitan culture.
I got to see it all at a key time when Pete Rose and the Reds were carving out the legacy that they would leave behind. When WKRP in Cincinnati was one of the top shows on TV, and the radio was playing large quantities of disco, punk, and new wave. Cincinnati has always been a city that knew how to rock. With local bands like the Modulators (I still have my I Modulate! album; my cousin used to play in the group) and radio stations like WEBN, Cincinnati was a haven for all sorts of rock. Not too far away in Akron, Devo had burst out of seemingly nowhere. And, of course, later on down the line, such bands as the Afghan Whigs would continue to issue from the Queen City and gather up chart success.
So here is Cincinnati’s Thistle with their latest release, the Oxygen EP. What do these guys sound like? Do they offer anything extraordinarily new and rocking? Not unless a blend of Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Smashing Pumpkins is anything “new”. I have always partially damned the grunge explosion of the early ‘90s as it spawned so many bands that sounded the same, whose albums were nearly interchangeable. Thistle sounds like they’re trapped somewhere near the end of the grunge years, incorporating less rage in the vocals, but enough of a sense of “hard rocking” in their music. Suffice it to say that the four songs offered up here should please the fans (of which Thistle appears to have quite a number), but I’m not so certain that it will break any new ground.
The band is a trio featuring Mike Montgomery (vocals and guitar), Toby Weiss (bass), and Rick McCarty (drums). And therein lies the band’s main problem, I believe. Some bands rock well with three guys (the Who is the most classic example, excepting Roger Daltrey’s harmonica playing, of course), while others often benefit with the addition of a fourth member. I can’t help but feel that Thistle could expand their sound a bit more with another musician in there. As it is, songs like “Iron Clad” wear out pretty fast with its plodding beat and expected thick guitar lines. I will give the band points for pulling out some Dinosaur Jr. notes and noise on “Part II”. Here, the band begins to work on something that would very well sound exciting, but ultimately they are grounded by their own three man limitations. In fact, the opening chords of “Iron Clad” and “Part II” sound so similar that one would be led to believe the band only had one trick up its sleeve.
The songs’ pace are also a problem. With three out of the four tunes here (including “Consonants That Kill”) lumbering along at that “In Bloom” tempo, there’s not a lot of room here to get up and stretch. It’s only until the final song, “Oxygen” that the tempo kicks up a couple steps. It’s undoubtedly the poppiest thing on the disc, and personally, I wouldn’t have minded hearing a bit more of a musical direction like this. It you only have four songs, it’s not a bad idea to mix up the sound. But I suppose that a number of people get into the slower paced thing (how else to explain the success of such albums as the Cure’s Disintegration or the boring Pornography?).
Thistle is a capable act, albeit one stuck in the past. Still, that seems to generate fan bases for such groups, and who can argue with that? There’s obviously a market lingering around that embraces the Seattle ethic. Not that that’s bad. It’s good to see rock bands getting recognition. I just would have preferred a bit more of an original style than what I heard on this disc. Maybe next time.