[7 September 2008]
If the name Sam Champion sounds familiar, you’re probably thinking of Good Morning America’s weatherman. Unless you’re a devotee of innocuous, not very original trad-rock, in which case, you may be thinking of the New York outfit behind Heavenly Bender, a band that bridges fuzzed-out, too-cool-for-you indie-rock with speaker-blowing ‘70s FM cock-rock: think Bad Company funneled through the super-ironic lens of Pavement.
Heavenly Bender, the group’s second full-length, kicks off promisingly enough, with the band’s most euphoric track to date. Album opener “Like a Secret” recalls the kind of hooky pop gems that were Brendan Benson’s goldmines before he became perennial second banana in a band (The Raconteurs) that treads Sam Champion’s path with a lot more panache, verve and consistency. For after this glorious opening salvo, the album’s momentum wanes, and is seldom recaptured.
Though not up to “Secret”’s caliber, the album does offer a few additional highlights. “There Was a Doubt” is an actively funky and engaging party tune, a garage-y romp that neither tries too hard nor eschews trying altogether. It’s followed by “Lorraine”, an elegant ballad that, with a bit more ambition and heart, might be reminiscent of an Exile on Main Street outtake. Occasionally, vocalist/guitarist Noah Chernin will turn a phrase that grabs your ear, but more often, his indistinct voice fades into the fuzzy ether and his laconic lyrics offer little more than title lines and the occasional non sequitur.
Sam Champion’s stumbles are, unfortunately, more tedious than their successes are delightful. “Be Mine Everyone” goes for Nuggets-style swagger, but instead sounds like a tuneless Jet B-side. “Direct” squanders its nifty hook on excessive repetition, utilizing Paul McCartney’s erroneous stipulation that reciting single parts ad nauseam will complete an unfinished song, while “You Can’t Stop” abandons its early shuffle in favor of a noisy, overlong fade-out. The bluesy, boozy, pseudo-psychedelic middle-half is messy and dull (“We Will Awaken”, “Dead Moon”). And an album that opened with so much pizzazz closes with a thud: “Commitments” is a plodding disaster that seems double the length of its excruciating three minutes. Even on its worst tracks, Sam Champion remains a crack band, way more skilled than it wants listeners to believe, but the inconsistent songwriting leaves Heavenly Bender a frustratingly disjointed listen.
Like his hallowed forebear, Stephen Malkmus, Chernin seems utterly petrified to hammer home even his best choruses: he’s a contemptuous tease, hoarding the insistent hooks he clearly has, but viewing them as anathema to some greater point he’s not quite making. Whenever the hooks dissipate, and the chops are sidelined, Sam Champion is an overindulgent snooze. Looseness is the weakness; these guys excel only when they’re tight and concise, verse-chorus-verse-chorus-shredding solo-final chorus. This is a band whose gifts are best accentuated through formulae, formulae from which they cower for fear of achieving the graceful pop of which they’re clearly capable.
The slacker inconsistency is rather annoying, like a potential A-student settling for C-minuses. At the same time, it’s a very Pavement-esque move: creating music that prizes distance and detachment over genuine emotion, emotion that their classic-rock influences delivered in droves. Sam Champion is unlikely ever to be a band whose sounds are more interesting than their songs. As such, the screwy, off-kilter sounds ought to underscore their songs and not, as is the case with Heavenly Bender, vice versa.