[10 April 2007]
One of the most important segments of American Idol, the television program that consumes its home country’s attention for roughly one third of each year, comes at the end of a contestant’s song when the three judges render their verdicts on the performance. The last of these three judges to speak is Simon Cowell, a man as famous for his sharp tongues as his tight t-shirts. Cowell likes to tell contestants that, although they have sung proficiently, he will probably forget their performance once the night is over. If Idol ever expands its format to include ensembles and Flame Shark enters the competition, the snarky Englishman would likely pronounce a similar judgment on the band.
The members of Flame Shark hail from Wisconsin, and they imbued their latest album with a hearty dose of Midwestern world-weariness. If listeners feel the need to classify their music, they could file Midnight on Pearl Beach in the folk rock section; however, this label hardly seems adequate when one actually hears Flame Shark’s blend of country, psychedelia, folk, and rock. The group views the world through a wide musical lens, but its lack of focus eventually undermines its album.
Midnight on Pearl Beach opens with outstanding tracks. “Deny, Deny, Deny” has a Dylanesque opening, a rollicking chorus, and a country twang. The group slows things down on “The Fossil”, a gorgeous tune with a chorus that sounds more than a little like Sufjan Stevens. The song isn’t perfect, though. About two thirds of the way through, the band launches into a mini-jam with electric guitar and piano solos. After the emotional impact of the song’s opening, these instrumentals seem flat and unnecessary. Even the best writers rely on good editors who shape their work. Perhaps the members of Flame Shark could have availed themselves of a similar service.
The third track, “The Chimes at Noon”, is also a winner. After this song, Flame Shark seems to lose some of its momentum. “Anxious to Arrive” is the first evidence of singer Justin Jahnke’s vocal shortcomings. His voice is weak at the upper ranges, and when he belts out the intense chorus, his vocal sound becomes grating. “Kill Me with Your Sunshine” sounds like it wants to be a Rolling Stones or Oasis song, but it just falls flat. As more and more songs play, the band’s sonic approach begins to wear thin. The group’s lazy melodies and strumming acoustics are always enjoyable, but they begin to feel a bit too familiar. If the album has a musical climax, it is the title track. The instruments hold down a deep, groovy folk riff, but unspectacular vocals and weird falsetto harmony keep the song from being great. This track seems to be representative of the album as a whole. Tiny imperfections or indiscretions mar what would otherwise be a very good record.
Context is as important a factor as any in musical evaluation. Occasionally a group’s mystique is as compelling as its music. Some bands seem to position themselves as visionaries or mavericks, and even if their work is not always successful, it is nevertheless interesting and rewarding. In the country-rock world, such a group is Wilco, a band of musicians whose ambition and courage compensate for their occasional flaws. Flame Shark is the opposite of this type of band. It has no mystique at all; in fact, it sounds like the kind of band you might hear at a bar on a normal weekend outing. It’s not bad by any means, but it’s also not likely to send listeners on a frenzied rush to local record stores. Aside from a few stellar tracks, Midnight on Pearl Beach is pleasant while it lasts, but in the end, it just fades into the background.