There is a buzz surrounding San Francisco’s Two Way Radio. Whether it be self-generated or created by fans and the industry matters not. Apparently these guys deserve some big things. After all, they were chosen to be included in the soundtrack to writer and director Tony Leahy’s film Mulletville. On top of that, there are the fans and press who chant “next big thing in alternative rock” in regard to Two Way Radio. But haven’t they heard the news? Alternative rock is dead. Well, that’s what “the buzz” says, anyway. So dig into that copy of Drops of Jupiter a few more times before expecting the next Stone Roses.
Two Way Radio are a fine band, but probably not as fine as the news might seem to indicate. They’re the kind of capable rock combo that would benefit from having someone come in and make a few changes to their songs or offer a few suggestions on how they could strengthen their sound. The opening “Burning Sun” features some decent vocal harmonies between vocalist and guitarist “B.” and lead guitarist / vocalist “Paul Vinyl” (strike one for the band right there for trying on the hipper than thou stage names), conjuring up a sound that is similar to Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz’s vocal style.
So basically we’re talking about a “safe”, homogenized brand of alternative rock rather than anything edgy. And truth be told, a lot of people enjoy that sound. But by the time track three (“Up”) rolls around, Two Way Radio is already thrashing about helplessly. Indeed, it’s a song that should have been left on the cutting room floor. The band tries too hard to rock out on a tune that just isn’t rocking, and B.‘s incessant repetition of the word “yeah” (as in “Oh yeah-hah! / Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah / I want you back”) is a really poor moment for the group. The guitars wail away, but there’s nothing to indicate that “Up” is truly a rocker. It’s like watching a pole vaulter attempt that final height that is obviously out of reach; it’s just not going to happen.
In “California”, what should be a sweeping mini-epic of impressive proportions becomes shot down when B.‘s voice gives out on him at the most crucial moment - singing the title of the song. And again, the band gives the impression that there should be a lot going on here, but the sound is just too thin to support such grandiosity. Brian Templeton’s bass work is capable, but it doesn’t offer the kind of anchoring that such a song needs, nor does drummer Bruce Fulford, who sounds like he’s holding back.
Unfortunately, B. doesn’t hold back when he should, as he dives right back into those grating shouts of “Yeahhhh!” in “In My Tree”. He does manage to carry a fine tune on “I’m Fine”, even though the rest of the band can’t conjure up anything but a kind of faceless, VH-1 style of pop that is supposed to sound moving and sensitive but winds up being plain vanilla. And that is the ultimate problem with Two Way Radio. They want to sound big, but their own musical shortcomings stop them from doing that. You always have a sense of them stopping just short of what could be a great song. Which is why perhaps a better producer than the band itself could add a lot to their promising, yet faltering sound.
That said, 14 tracks here are just too much. At the halfway point, Bad Transistor hasn’t offered up enough variety or excitement to make one feel the need to hear the last seven songs. And that’s probably just as well, as Two Way Radio continue to try desperately to rock out on “Iyf”, in which B.‘s voice gives out on him again when he reaches for the higher notes, and “Better This Way”, which is another frustrating bit of rock that never finds a door out. So the band swings away haphazardly between those kinds of sounds and the slower tones of things like “Drive” and “Into The Door” that are equally weak thanks to a directionless pattern.
Two Way Radio probably do have what it takes to make a good record, but they haven’t made it yet on Bad Transistor. If sculpted into the kinds of sounds that these guys apparently want to create, there’s no doubt that they could become quite successful. Yet an editor, a producer, and some stronger songs is what they need, and they don’t have any of those on this album. Perhaps next time they will. Perhaps there won’t even be a next time.