[30 May 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Crow Bait is a band that rose out of the DIY and punk scene in Long Island. Members played in raucous bands like Iron Chic and Sister Kisser. So it’s easy enough to refer to this as another punk band. But Crow Bait’s first record isn’t quite that, and when it’s working, it shifts its gaze from the basement shows of Long Island to the classic rock of the South, and the old sounds of Laurel Canyon, among other things. There’s a looseness to these songs that actually helps amp up the tension, and Sliding Through the Halls of Fate becomes an interesting mesh of punk ethos and energy with the jangle and slide of classic rock and country.
There’s certainly propulsive drums and crunching chords on the album, from the soaring opener “The Ocean”, to the lean churn of “If I Could”. It can also turn those elements into something moodier on “Pretty Good Things” or whip them up into a spacey shuffle on “Cognate”. But there’s more to these songs than just three chords and shouting. “The Ocean” starts with soft guitars, intimate vocals, and even when the song fully kicks in, the distant scuff of an acoustic guitar, and the ringing phrasings the distorted electric lead gives us carves out more space than it fills up. It also leads us to a beautifully epic chorus, full of gang vocals and crashing drums. “Crow Bait” slows this formula down and calls to mid-‘90s acts like Buffalo Tom in its ability to mesh classic rock riffs with immediate, roughed-up emotion. Even the leaner turn of “Pretty Good Things”, built on shouted vocals and power chords as you’d expect, doesn’t sneer so much as it jangles. In these moments, Crow Bait succeeds on holding back from fully unleashing the angst underneath these songs, and the guitar work here makes use of every note that comprise these chords. Rather than a quickfire downstroke, these progressions take their time and create curious little corners in these songs.
What also adds charm to the best songs here is that they use this rough energy to sound oddly innocent, even sweet. On “The Ocean”, the band sounds blissed out “just sitting here drinking the sunshine.” “If I Could” may be full of rough, barking vocals, but those hard-shouted words also beg someone to “take my hand” in search of an end to some discord, to get back to a quieter kind of love. There’s plenty of tough times on the record – see “Searching For My Boots on the Highway” – but these early songs set up an album in search of simple escapes, of an innocent, even basic idea of happiness. These carefully constructed songs take these basic feelings and make them more complex and fascinating, and these songs are full of surprises while at the same time are immediate in their pleasures.
Unfortunately, some of the record struggles to find the same effective balance. The longer the band indulges in these explorations of other sounds, the more they sometimes get lost. The dusty, six-minute-plus “Ancient Eyes” is a moody mid-album piece that rings out with distant vocals and guitars early on, but never quite builds from there. “Hello out there,” the song starts, but in the wandering, growing volume of the song, it’s hard to know where that call is coming from or where it’s aimed at. The equally big “A Billion Lives” leans too heavily on Southern rock twang and solos to work on its own, as the band can’t sustain the slow shuffle of the song for six minutes. These songs move from incorporating other traditions into the band’s sound and into straight-up borrowing of other genres, so it is little wonder these songs seem like the most anonymous of the bunch. It also doesn’t help that Crow Bait closes the record with an unnecessary take on the Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”.
That closing cover undoes too many of the album’s charms to be a good place to end this record. For one, it’s a too-on-the-nose nod to some of the influences that shape these songs, but it also distracts us from Crow Bait’s own songwriting, their own grit and edge. It honors the original, but somehow misses the Band’s energy and its own in trying to mesh the two. This song, and moments too closely tied to it, end up distracting from an album that has plenty of solid and surprising songs, ones that question the limitations of different rock traditions in bracing, catchy songs. The album has fruitful experimentation at its center, but it gets confused by the missteps and borrowing around it.