[14 May 2008]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Corvallis, Oregon, is home to historic covered bridges, a winter wildlife refuge for migrating birds, hiking trails teeming with wildflowers, and rain. Like other places in the Pacific Northwest, the rain seems to seep into every aspect of life, even the music. Because of that, many Oregon bands share similarities with the resonant style of a moist metropolis and musical mecca to the north—harder beats, harsher distortion, and cloudier subject matter. This is not the West Coast of a sunny California. But unlike the murky grey tones of Seattle, or even Portland, the Willamette Valley generally germinates a greener atmosphere.
One source of these more verdant vibrations is Corvallis’s Wake Robin. This quartet incorporates all the influences of its environment and everyday living into its music, from the everyman daily grind to the precious moments of human connection, from the guilt born of a social conscience at odds with ego-based judgments to the inevitable acceptance of darkness, decay, and death so readily evident in the local climate. In fact, Wake Robin’s The Taker is ripe with references to the mortality inherent in every situation. But it’s not at all a depressing meditation on death; rather, it manages to be a rocking affirmation of the little things in life.
The Taker begins with “Disappointing Days”, a catchy rocker that is anything but disappointing. Dense lyrical snapshots surge forth in rhythmic runs. From the very beginning, it’s clear that Brody Lowe (vocals, guitar) is a savvy songwriter, and backed by the skillful trio of Matthew Slaughter (bass), Joel Albrecht (drums), and Kris Gillmore (guitar, piano), his sonic stories spring to life.
“Black and White” contrasts subtly shaded, vaguely sinister verses with the openly menacing marching beat of the chorus of “One two three four / Burn the buildings to the floor”. The effect is reminiscent of bands like Sons and Daughters—like that band, Wake Robin excels at developing a balance between tension and release, which creates very compelling storytelling. “The Duel” provides a break in the sense of suspense with its charmingly cyclical instrumental strumming, before dramatic tension returns on “Bastard”, setting the stage for the tracks that are the heart of The Taker.
“Light Headed” features Lowe’s best vocal performance set against weaving waves of guitar interplay with Gillmore, while “Staring at the Stars”—the album’s centerpiece—is unquestionably the finest example of first-rate songwriting. “And all the lights, they cover me / And watch me gather scars / Under miles of darkness / I’m staring at the stars”, sings Lowe over elegant accompaniment from guest cellist Talia Lindsley.
“Never Meant” has a resplendent ringing melody and an uplifting, sweeping momentum that makes the heartbreak lyrics bittersweet. Then, with Lowe’s sweet vocals begging the question and a smoking solo on guitar standing in for the Musitron lick of the original, “Runaway” stands out as an exemplary interpretation in a long line of covers of the Del Shannon classic. Listening to this, anyone would wonder why she ran away! Surely she made a mistake.
Mistakes and misunderstandings mock the characters in the title track as they mourn a misstep misconstrued as a suicide, and “A thousand times a day / ‘The Taker’ contemplates who’s next”. It’s a terrific arrangement, too. Albrecht’s percussive accents and propulsive swing are particularly engaging. “Some People” features a funky bass line from Slaughter and bursts of bright, soulful horns from guest players Evan Churchill (trumpet) and Grant Thomas (trombone). This track definitely will get people on their feet!
“Caught You in a Lie” is a mover too; a slightly sinister slice of Americana in an updated take on traditional, Johnny Cash-style song craft. There’s the freight-train rhythm and a little of the Luther Perkins boom-chicka-boom in the spirally descending guitar lines, but the lyrical content and impassioned vocal delivery are what really sells it as Lowe snarls, “There’s no way on earth / That you’re going to live past your sins / Oooooh, I caught you in a lie / I caught you in a lie”. It’s easy to imagine this as something The Man in Black himself might choose to cover were he still with us today. It’s a classic.
“West Coast Postman” is a classic of another variety: the hook-heavy pop ballad. Pealing guitars and passionate pleas give this track the melodic mettle that remains in memory long after its refrain has ended. The Taker wraps up with “Bird on a Wire”, a somber reflection on watching time, and life, pass. The theme comes full circle, and in the streaming sounds of finger-picking, gentle strumming, and beading rhythm, the rain reappears. Wake Robin is clearly a product of its environment, carving out its niche in the northwest, but The Taker suggests it will thrive worldwide.