[20 April 2008]
Golden Shoulders, a musical collective from Nevada City, California, consists of a constantly rotating lineup of musicians all centered around songwriter Adam Kline. He is joined by an assortment of musicians on Friendship is Deep, from drummer Neal Morgan of Joanna Newsom’s Ys Street Band, to bassist Jason Graham of Little Wings. This is the collective’s second full-length, originally released in limited distribution in 2004, and now reissued with two bonus tracks.
This album packs a much different punch than the raw energy of Golden Shoulders’ 2002 debut LP, Let My Burden Be, certainly due to the different set of musicians that accompanies Adam Kline here. Where that disc felt fresh, with energetic choruses and creatively arranged tracks, Friendship Is Deep seems to contain less of a distinct sound. It specifically channels the sound of bands like Cake, especially on “Don’t Ever Do That Again”, with its guitar-powered drive and rambly, shaking vocals. But where Cake’s music often dives deeper than it initially seems to, Friendship is Deep hovers across the surface. Friendship may be deep, but much of this album fails to transcend the limits of simple alternative rock that it seems to be bound by.
The central problem is not lack of ingenuity, for Adam Kline is a talented songwriter with innovative ideas and musical concepts. The final half of “This Is a Test”, with a pretty piano line running underneath the melody, is momentous in its syncopation. Kline’s rhymes are consistently fresh and often witty, and occasionally even politically motivated, like these final lines from “Golden Soldiers”:
Surrender is a noble end
For fights with nothing to defend
And there won’t be reasons for the fight
Once soldiers of the world unite.
Nor is the central problem musical incompetence, for there are scattered bits and pieces of true brilliance among these tracks. The bouncing bass of “This Is a Test” shows off Kline’s songwriting talents, accompanied by horn flourishes and lines like, “It is not a fear of heights / It’s a fear of getting taller / By standing on a stack of borrowed dollars.” The final two bonus tracks, added after the album’s original release, are two of the album’s strongest. The group finally breaks through with some genuine authenticity on the swaggering “Let My Burden Be” as Kline’s voice strains while he finishes, “I’m battered from the brawl / and left to wonder / if it was deep at all.” The following track, “Patience Darling, Patience” is equally impressive, as forceful chords and momentum-filled vocal harmonies make it the album’s most memorable cut. It is unfortunate that these glimpses of greatness are fleeting.
The central problem of this album seems to be the issue of underdevelopment that commonly hinders the products of collective-type groups, perhaps because the fact that they are a temporary musical unit limits the extents of their creative endeavors. Few of these tracks venture beyond the three minute mark. This brevity it not a problem in itself, but rather, reflective of the fact that this album lacks a general feeling of intent or purpose. These songs are all fine, most are good, and a few are verging on great. But the album as a whole fails to attain the emotional connection and musical versatility that Let My Burden Be so artfully achieved. The music on this album rarely captures anything beyond in-the-moment enjoyment: the music here is not deep enough to succeed on an insightful or emotional level. This is not to say that music has to be deep to be worth a listen. But if it provides no intellectual or artistic stimulation, it must be otherwise stimulating, and on Friendship is Deep, the hooks are not quite poppy enough to rescue the album in terms of pure pop by itself.
The host of musicians that join together for this album, and the numerous artists these musicians have worked with – from Gnarls Barkley to Cake to Joanna Newsom – are full of energy and exceptional musicality. Many of the tracks they produce together seem to be hovering on the edge of greatness. However, ultimately it seems that the time spent listening for these fleeting moments of greatness might better be spent returning to Let My Burden Be, or exploring the personal projects of each of Golden Shoulders’ talented contributors.