The last time we left our champions of weird, they were in a little bit of chaos. The Grand Rapids trio of nut jobs (who used the unusual drum-bass-keyboard lineup) started off releasing avant-noise-pop songs named after colors with Jack White as their producer. The resulting album, Do Rabbits Wonder?, was release to little acclaim and even smaller sales figures. Switching labels, they released Flamingo Honey, this time releasing 10 songs that, all together, clocked in at less than 10 minutes. It was obvious that this was a band that thrived on novelty, but sadly not quality.
Though a step forward in terms of quality, Types of Wood will do little to shake that image.
At yet another new label (this time Brille), the band is exhibiting restraint for the first time. The crazy keyboard freak-outs that highlighted Rabbits’ best moments (like “Red”, and the excellent coulda-been single “Blue”) are absolutely nowhere to be found. As a matter of fact, vocalist David Swanson’s keyboard paranoia takes a huge backseat this time out, leaving bassist Steve Damstra to do most—if not all—of the melodic work. Unsurprisingly, an album that is drum-n-bass in the truest sense sounds extremely dry. No fancy echo effects or production flourishes—just a drum kit and a bass. Is the band angling for a radio hit? Tracks like the straight-forward and simplistic “Up-Tight” certainly have more crossover appeal than most all of the band’s back catalog, but unfortunately, this is simply too simple and basic a sound. Hooks are around but not terribly catchy—they aren’t going to pull out a left-fielder like King Missile’s “Detachable Penis” anytime soon. Even when not exciting, the band was at least always interesting, but tracks like “Slugger” and “Umbrella People” conjure up the one word that Whirlwind Heat would never seem to encompass: dull.
This isn’t to say that Types of Wood doesn’t have its moments. The low-down, almost bluesy “Captain Cave” is such a radical departure from their sound, it’s almost like a Bizzaro World radio transmission of a Blues Traveler ballad. The 8-minute long “Nylon Heart” has a laid-back and jazzy vibe, slowly devolving into Strange Instrumental Noodling Land, but still remaining more melodically compelling than the majority of the album. The undeniable highlight, however, is “Gene Pool Style”—a fantastic and hilarious lyrical tale of selling sperm to make money told with absolutely zero sincerity. Yes, this is the Whirlwind Heat we know and love.
Is it wrong to criticize a band for wanting to change their sound around? It is when the sound is severely compromising the band’s values and abilities. “But this is just the album that they wanted to make!” some may say. That’s great for them—it’s just unfortunate the album is of little value.