Saturnine: Pleasure of Ruins

[15 October 2001]

By Jason Thompson

What if . . . ?

What if, long ago, Robert Smith of the Cure and Michael Stipe of R.E.M. had decided to write some songs and form a band with which to perform them? If they had, the end result may very well be what is currently known as Saturnine. This New York based group had its seeds sown in the early ‘90s. Through the years, the band has had some personnel changes and now consists of Mike Donorfio on bass, Matt Gallaway on guitar and vocals, Jim Harwood on drums, and John Pisani on keyboards. But if Peter Buck, Michael Stipe, and Robert Smith aren’t lurking about on there as well, it’s certainly a good con.

Of course, with a sound like that, you’re going to have a hard time getting your own voice heard. And certainly, listening to an album like Murmur or Seventeen Seconds brings a bit more enjoyment than listening to the distilled thrills of both through the instrumentation of Saturnine. Indeed, it’s the opening song, “When We Were Anchors for the Sun” that sounds uncannily like the Cure’s “A Forest”. From the bass riff down to the tight and straight forward drum pattern, the song smacks of Robert Smith before he decided to become boring. But the problem is that we’ve heard it before. And granted, Matt Gallaway actually sings instead of mopes the lyrics out, but the obvious musical mirror image still remains. Though Gallaway does try the cryptic poetc turn of a phrase in lines like “This is an industry that science cannot even try to help / It’s more the money than the plans / Beneath the cedars we find branches in the snow / Beneath the snow we find the branches now have roots that have just now begun to grow”.

Enter the Michael Stipe muse.

“Entertainment is the future of the world / It’s enough to make you wish for something more”. How decidedly R.E.M. Well, it is if you hear it at least. But the problem is that even when you do, you wish Saturnine would just break free of its musical restraints. The guitars are usually terse and spare. Jim Harwood’s drumming is so straight laced that one begins to thirst for just a simple drum fill. And while the music does indeed echo early ‘80s college rock, the dynamics of what made that older music so great are not included here. Unlike the Cure, there are no dramatic moments to break the tension. And unlike R.E.M., there are no sudden outbreaks of joyous melodic moments to balance out the abstract quirkiness.

Saturnine does eventually break out of their cocoon on the fourth track, “Picking Up the Pieces of the World”, and nowhere else is the Murmur/Reckoning sound exploited so strongly. This sudden uptempo ride continues on through the less exuberant “The History of Cleveland” and the instrumental “Juicy Whip”. Yet even the energy explored in these three sudden outbreaks doesn’t seem to catch hold to anything solidly gratifying. Yes, the music is nice, and yes the band is tight, but they never want to venture out beyond the picket fence surrounding the front lawn. It’s as if they decided to put in some upbeat numbers because they felt obligated. There is no sense of an honest joy in these songs.

Part of that can be chalked up to Matt Gallaway’s vocals, which, though pleasant, never spark any real passion on the album. The other downside is attributable to John Pisani’s keyboards. They drone on rather loudly at times, eking the rest of the life out of the sound. Granted, Gallaway lets his guitar cut loose with a little feedback on “Mike’s #2”, but again it feels like he did it just because of an unwritten obligation. A kind of “Oh well, we haven’t done this yet, so let’s go ahead and put that in now” kind of feeling.

That the band is so committed to producing a sound of sorts that was popular two decades ago is somewhat amiable, but it never catches fire. Gallaway tries on the Stipe mask one last time for “Make Way for the New Parade”, but it only makes one long for the real thing. And while this may not have even been the band’s intention at all, the sound is clearly there.

Pleasure of Ruins is pleasant enough, but it lacks any real vigor or fire. It plays on plainly, and at the end of it, your stereo may just want to let out a little sigh. Not because of a strong workout, but because the music and performances here have failed to be even remotely engaging. Saturnine would do well to branch out a little in the future. Either that, or explore a more original sound.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/saturine-pleasure/