[16 January 2008]
Live albums are a tricky business. When an artist chooses (or has the choice made for them) to chronicle a concert, it can be an opportunity to provide an exciting look into elements of their musicianship, showmanship, and ability to translate their material to the masses. Live albums can also be an exercise in exposure, shining light onto aspects of an artist’s performance that might not be as polished as hoped for, revealing flaws in performance or even songwriting that studio magic can help to hide.
Live albums are usually an endeavor best undertaken by veteran acts with a large repertoire to draw from. These groups are more likely to have the presence of mind and the musical chops to both re-envision their songs and communicate fresh nuances to their audience. Artists with little time on the road or a relatively small catalog aren’t as apt to make a concert successful both for the audience in front of them and the one listening at home months or years later. There have been exceptions; for example, a decade ago when just two albums into their career, Counting Crows released Across a Wire, an ambitious dual-disc live project that, in many moments, displayed sparkle, innovation, and boldness.
Enter the Wreckers. The buzzed about pop-country duo is comprised of Michelle Branch, the pop wunderkind who began churning out hit records at the age of 18, and country singer-songwriter Jessica Harp. The pair’s first release, Stand Still, Look Pretty broke in 2006 and received attention and acclaim, including a place on PopMatters’ list of the best country albums of that year. Even with Branch’s pop pedigree and the positivity surrounding their debut, treading out into the live album waters at this point in the group’s history seems a risky venture. Way Back Home captures the band at a July 2007 performance at New York City’s famed Bowery Ballroom.
While, in places, Way Back Home shows off the talents of Branch and Harp (and shows the potential havoc the Wreckers could wreak on the country charts), the reward isn’t equivalent to the risk.
Branch and Harp are both talented vocalists and each takes her turn displaying confidence in their work. However, the live setting only allows for hints at how glorious their harmonic cohesion can be; at times (see opening track “The Good Kind” for a quick example) the unsteady vocals which can trouble a live performer are doubled and detract from the melody rather than enhancing it.
When Way Back Home is at its best, Branch, Harp, and their band display the type of energy and drive necessary to sustain a memorable live performance. In these moments, there is a focus and direction as well as a sense of why the group received such encouraging initial press. “Damn That Radio” is a defiant country-rock stomp to be proud of, a more heart-broken, honky-tonking cousin to REM’s classic “Radio Song”. Another upbeat tune, “My, Oh My”, highlights how good the vocal harmonies between the pair can be when they match each other in enthusiasm and vocal quality. “Different Truck, Same Loser” (another classic country romp) and “Lay Down” (more pop than country with a great melody) are other highlights. Branch dedicates the latter to Harp and her fiancé, Jason Mowery (who plays a very mean fiddle in the Wreckers’ backing band).
Unfortunately, this sort of charisma and momentum only come in spurts; the overall lack thereof mars the translation of the Wreckers’ live experience to CD. Instances of letdown occur at various points. Though it starts with bluesy country riffs from both guitar and organ, the re-imagined Branch solo hit “Love Me Like That” suffers from muddy vocals (which seem to be a result of both lacking performances and the vocal mix) that make an otherwise strong melody seem pretty mediocre. The title track suffers a similar fate for similar reasons. Additionally, the group seems to have a tough time transferring the spirit of their most vigorous numbers to mid-tempo cuts and ballads; how much of this perceived lack of energy has to do with the group’s performance and how much has to do with technical aspects is hard to determine but the net result is clear. One exception is “Tennessee”, a ballad that tenderly communicates longings for home and genuine community.
Awkward moments are very recognizable during Branch and Harp’s in-between song banter with the audience and each other; no matter the performer, those interactions often teeter on the brink of being uncomfortable and the Wreckers, at least in this case, do themselves few favors in this area.
The album’s accompanying DVD certainly enhances the experience (as such DVDs usually do) by visually filling in some performance gaps that are more glaring with audio alone. The production value on the DVD is more than respectable and a bonus interview with Branch and Harp, albeit a very brief one, gives insight into the performers’ personalities. At the same time, the DVD doesn’t help the Wreckers gain much ground in the area of displaying a spark in their performance; there are still moments that lack a certain quality. Call it energy or stage presence or what you will, the set drags far too often.
According to several websites, the Wreckers are going on an indefinite hiatus while both Branch and Harp reach back out into the solo world. The pair displays a wealth of potential for combining their strengths to create a talented sum. Way Back Home is an incomplete representation of this ability and is not a fitting end to the band’s vision. Let’s hope the promise that exists for future Wreckers projects is fulfilled and the band’s chance at greatness is fully realized.