[30 August 2011]
PopMatters Events Editor
On “Death of Communication”, the lead single from Company of Thieves’ sophomore effort, Running From a Gamble, vocalist Genevieve Schatz proclaims that “Everything we’ll ever need is deep inside of our limitless beings / We struggle and we fight ‘cause it feels good to wonder why our lives are happening”. Although cluttered and a bit too frank to translate well into a rock song, these lyrics do seem to sum up the ideas permeating throughout the album. Schatz has said that the album is “a coming of age adventure about the mysterious, passionate, and painful transition from dependence and enchantment to autonomy and awareness.” It goes without saying that this is no small task to pull off, especially for a fairly new band that still hasn’t exactly nailed down its own sound.
Two years ago, Company of Thieves were riding high on their brilliantly orchestrated single “Oscar Wilde” from their debut album Ordinary Riches. The success of that song set into motion a whirlwind of TV appearances and slots on high-profile indie rock tours that enabled the band to grow and become one of the more compelling live performances around. There’s no denying that Schatz’s vocal abilities along with guitarist Marc Walloch’s axe skills are a promising combination, but one great song and one pretty darn good debut do not make a career. Thus comes the inevitable pressure of following up such promise with an even better sophomore effort. Running From a Gamble isn’t a bad album; it’s just not as good as it could have been.
Over the course of its 13 tracks, Running From a Gamble covers the entire indie rock playbook without ever settling into a comfort zone. Acoustic number “Won’t Go Quietly” feels like it should be right up the band’s alley, the slow track crescendoing with Schatz belting, “I will not go quietly! / I will not be silenced!” Unfortunately, the track is mostly forgettable in the build to and descent from this moment. Meanwhile, the angsty “Modern Waste” touches the opposite end of the spectrum with its biting guitar riffs and Mike Ortiz’s driving drums. With a catchy chorus and radio-ready appeal, the track seems within the band’s wheelhouse as well, but it still feels as though it’s missing something.
Company of Thieves finds its middle ground in the form of the ambient “King of Dreams”. It’s a mellow track, featuring brilliantly subdued vocals from Schatz accompanied by jazzy guitar work from Walloch (and even a backing organ), all making this a true-stand out. It’s moments like this that the band shows itself capable of capturing lightning in a bottle, but it’s never able to harness it long enough to make Running From a Gamble great. “Syrup” feels like a She & Him b-side, while album opener “Queen of Hearts” fools you into thinking its about to explode before the sadly underwhelming chorus hits. Likewise, “Nothing’s in the Flowers” begins promisingly enough, only to fall victim to its own gratingly repetitive chorus. The aforementioned single “Death of Communication” is a good alt-rock song with amazing vocals but lacks the unique charm that made “Oscar Wilde” such a likeable track.
If there’s one thing to be taken away from Running From a Gamble, it’s that Genevieve Schatz is one of the best female vocalists in rock today. Even when some of the album’s tracks feel lackluster, there’s always intrigue to be found in her voice. She sings every note on this album with conviction and passion, which manages to turn some of the songs from failures to pretty darn good tracks. Company of Thieves has talent, but they have, more or less, succumbed to the dreaded sophomore slump syndrome. This doesn’t mean the end, but hopefully this let-down will help the band find their niche for more than just momentary flashes on their next effort.