Carbon Leaf: Indian Summer

[29 August 2004]

By Michael Metivier

If you’re familiar with Richmond, Virginia’s Carbon Leaf and their albums spanning back to 1995, then you’re probably aware of their tours with Dave Matthews Band, David Gray, and Guster. If you’re uninitiated, and you happen upon their latest, Indian Summer, then that fact will be of absolutely no surprise. It’s possessed of the same radio-approved hooks, lilting choruses, “eclectic” arrangements, and overall mediocrity that plague sensitive jangly bands everywhere.

It’s tough to pin down the musical roots of Indian Summer. Surging, earnest, singalong choruses leap out a la U2 or Big Country, while the bubbly bassline that opens “Life Less Ordinary” could have been penned under the table and dreaming. It’s serviceable, Celtic-tinged rock that I imagine could be poised to move serious units for the 18-24 college male demographic. But as far as possessing moments that are memorable and not simply catchy, Indian Summer leaves much to be desired.

“Changeless” is a Joshua Tree-type anthem where singer Barry Privett calls “some friends to share some wine / Share some laughs and last goodbyes / My photographs of these years / Will make me laugh through the tears”. If you’ve just graduated high school, or college, or you’re a former Friends cast member, this is your song. All you need is a pretty font, and you can cut and paste it into your scrapbook. “What are the odds / What are the odds / That I will miss your smile”, the song builds, before crashing into a bittersweet “Take care / ...Fly away and see the world”. I stand corrected, if you’re a recent graduate with a trust fund and job at your dad’s company to look forward to, this is your song.

But wait, the next song is called “This Is My Song!”, so I stand corrected again. Actually, “This Is My Song!” starts promisingly enough, its guitar figure doing a deft impression of a fife melody over a punkish backbeat. Then come the slick drum fills and Privett’s strident vocal stylings, which sometimes sound like Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong. The percussive yeoman delivery works better, revealing more personality on “My Song” than on midtempo numbers like “Grey Sky Eyes”. The band whips up a Peter Gabriel-ish atmosphere that is pleasant enough, but nothing stands out as extraordinary. Vocal and solo guitar melodies adhere closely to the chord progressions, and there’s little development from start to finish. After a verse and chorus, you have a pretty good idea of where the song will end up. When the songs erupts in a short-lived bridge, it functions well to break the pattern, but that’s it.

“Raise the Roof” oddly chases the lines “Dance ‘til you fall / Love ‘til you die” with “Shut your mouth”. Now that’s unexpected, but also perhaps unintentionally funny, followed as it is by frat-boy dance shout-out “Raise the roof”. Privett’s affected enunciations suggest that he’s not joking, unfortunately; he doesn’t so much sing a melody as hammer one note over and over until the next chord. The song appears to be a cross between the life-is-short-let’s-party funk of “Tripping Billies” and the creepy come-ons of “Crash”, as in “Touch me again in my dreams ‘til I feel / Touch me again ‘til I wake and it’s real”. Ugh, shut your mouth!

Perhaps all of this wouldn’t be so frustrating if there weren’t occasional glimpses of something genuine. “One Prairie Outpost”, as the title suggests, is a vaguely country-ish ramble, but also the one song that earns its preciousness with restrained and smart arrangement. It has a high-lonesome feel accentuated by lightly reverbed solo guitar and brushed drumming. Not surprisingly, it’s also the shortest song on Indian Summer, suggesting that more restraint could’ve trimmed the fat elsewhere. As a live act, especially on an atypically warm night in mid-September, at an ourdoor venue with some wine and laughs, Carbon Leaf is probably an excellent soundtrack. But not here, not now, not in my stereo.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/carbonleaf-indian/