[14 July 2014]
Wild Animals is Trampled By Turtles’ seventh studio album, and it finds the group focusing on the quieter, folkier aspects of their sound. The production, courtesy of Low’s Alan Sparhawk, is crisp and clear, and lead singer Dave Simonett’s vocals show an impressive degree of vulnerability, something that fits nicely with the abundance of quiet songs on the album. Sadly, Simonett’s songwriting leaves a lot to be desired here, and the bulk of Wild Animals ends up sounding utterly nondescript. The band is still mostly known outside their fanbase for their high-speed bluegrass and acoustic covers of indie rock songs, and this album probably won’t do anything to change that reputation.
It’s not that tracks like the loping “Silver Light”, the waltzing “Repetition”, or the spare and open-sounding title track are bad. They are perfectly listenable songs in the modern folk-grass mold. But they are exactly the kind of songs you’d expect from a band in this genre, and Trampled By Turtles have almost no musical tricks up their sleeves to surprise listeners. Simonett’s lyrics aren’t particularly emotionally affecting, and his songwriting offers very little in the way of variety. It doesn’t really make much of a difference when the band changes up their sound, either. The old time country of “Nobody Knows” sits right next to the rueful, reminiscent folk of album closer “Winners”, and somehow the two blend right together in a muddle. “Winners” has at least a semblance of an interesting narrative, or at least it could with a little more lyrical focus. But the band seems so intent on highlighting Simonett’s vocals and lyrics that they neglect to do anything else interesting.
It’s not all too-sweet folk songs and regretful dirges on Wild Animals, though. The slightly uptempo “Are You Behind the Shining Star?” made an appearance on Simonett’s solo EP several months ago as a catchy, low-key rock song, complete with a nice mid-song sleigh bell solo. Simonett brings the song to the full band essentially unchanged, and the band adds very pretty harmonies as well as distinctive mandolin and violin accompaniments. A violin solo replaces the sleigh bells, but the band even keeps most of the drumming, albeit minimizing it with a tambourine. It’s a solid take on a good song and it breaks up the slower material.
Trampled By Turtles also includes a couple of nods to its speed bluegrass past with “Come Back Home” and “Western World”. The band should be lauded for adding vocals and melodies to songs that most other bluegrass acts would leave as instrumentals. What’s more problematic, though, is that the two songs sound so similar. “Come Back Home” is the more successful of the two, opening (and closing) with a distinctive swirling violin line from Ryan Young and featuring Dave Carroll’s lightning-fast banjo picking. “Western World” has a slightly better vocal melody than “Come Back Home”. but otherwise might as well be the same song. It could’ve been more successful for the band to put both tracks in the same key, sync up the lyrical topics, and label them as “Western World, Part 1” and “Western World, Part 2” or something. As is, it sounds like the band grafted different vocals onto different takes of the same high-speed jam, and that’s unfortunate.
While Wild Animals is not without its charms, there certainly aren’t enough of them to make it a successful album. When your album highlights are a song that sounded just as good in a previous rock incarnation and a pair of fast songs that sound like fraternal twins, it’s probably not your best effort. Nothing on Wild Animals is interesting or distinct enough to set Trampled By Turtles apart in this increasingly crowded genre. So it’s probably good that they already have an established fanbase that will forgive this particular misstep and stick with them, anyway.