[10 February 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Whichever way you look at it, Ladyfinger (ne) has always been somewhat of an awkward fit. As far and away the heaviest band on Conor Oberst’s Saddle Creek Records, their sound isn’t exactly one that would seem very enticing to fans of labelmates Bright Eyes or Tokyo Police Club. They draw heavily from punk and post-hardcore, but don’t pander to those crowds, going for a broader style than many of their peers are willing to attempt. And while they’re capable of executing a massive, almost stoner/desert rock sound to offset the more discordant hardcore riffs, when recorded by metal producer extraordinaire Matt Bayles (who has produced and mixed classic albums by Mastodon, Botch, and Isis) the songs can be perceived as sounding too mainstream-friendly to appeal to the more insular-minded metal audience. At the rate the foursome is going, however, it shouldn’t be much longer before enough people from all sides realize just what Ladyfinger (ne) is capable of.
The Omaha, Nebraska band has enormous crossover potential, which was evidenced on 2006’s debut album Heavy Hands. The follow-up Dusk marks an even bolder step forward. On the last album, the mixture of rock, metal, and punk tended to be a little awkward at times, Bayles’s trademark robust production playing up the heavy rock influence a little too much for Ladyfinger (ne)‘s own good. With the new album, though, both the band and Bayles have found a comfortable middle ground, the band delivering far more dynamic songwriting without betraying the visceral power of the arrangements, the producer adding a more subtle touch from time to time. Consequently, we’re left with a bold record that’s as accessible as it is visceral.
Despite the band’s considerable musical chops, their one ace in the hole is singer/guitarist Chris Machmuller, whose warm, drowsy croon fits somewhere between Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme and Coldplay’s Chris Martin. Cynics might derogatorily attach the label “emo” upon hearing that throaty voice singing introspective lyrics, but Machmuller never relies too heavily on the sensitive side, playing the contrast from soft to aggressive to great effect. Nowhere does his approach work better than on the single “Little Things”. His charismatic delivery is underscored by a varied yet cohesive, contagious arrangement, a choppy punk intro backing up a gentle vocal melody, which then gracefully shifts into something out of the Constantines’ book of tricks, exploding into a wickedly catchy, Fugazi-inspired riff at 1:23. Brooding yet hard charging, it sets the tone for the rest of the album, and is one of the better rock singles of early 2009.
For the most part, the other nine tracks hold their own very well. “Over and Over” expertly blends a Queens of the Stone Age groove with dissonant post-hardcore guitar tones, while the pummeling “A.D.D.” goes for a far more physical approach. Bayles’s mix helps create a gigantic bottom end, the song anchored by the Jesus Lizard-inspired rhythm section of bassist Ethan Jones and drummer Pat Oakes. Machmuller’s exhortations of, “You’re just a kid, just a kid!” are a well-timed moment of melody. “Two Years” starts off in the contemplative direction of Cursive, but suddenly explodes with an up-tempo arrangement reminiscent of Drive Like Jehu. Previously released as a single in 2007, “Work Party” is given a good spit and polish by Bayles, and the scorching version we hear on Dusk absolutely obliterates the original. While Machmuller’s Josh Homme worship is a bit shameless, the song’s rampaging pace and its raucous shout-along chorus make it simply undeniable.
The album gets a little bolder during the final 14 minutes, starting with the surprisingly gentle “Plans”, which if it were not for the soaring guitar work by Machmuller and Jamie Massey throughout the track, could be described as “lilting”. If “Little Things” doesn’t help attract a larger audience, “Let’s Get Married” just might. Machmuller’s “us against the world” sentiment is considerably more tongue-in-cheek than one would expect in a song of that name. Interestingly, the seven-minute “Born in the 80’s” is the album’s sole minor stumbling block, in which the band goes for a gigantic sound akin to Isis and tries to act as Generation Y spokesmen at the same time, but with Machmuller’s lyrics lacking any of the eloquence he shows throughout the rest of the record (“It might be time we prove our use / We kind of suck in the workplace / It’s high time that we made an excuse”). Still, the entire band’s performance on the track is blistering, capping off an album that fully deserves to be a crossover success on the same level as the Gaslight Anthem in 2008, and not be confined to a mere 20-minute slot on Warped Tour.