Company of Thieves: Ordinary Riches

[26 April 2009]

By Thomas Hauner

A debut album is a terrible thing to waste. Musical first impressions couldn’t be more important for today’s fickle consumers—just look at the after effects of SXSW. So when a musical introduction proves anything less than stellar, why wait around for seconds when an all-you-can-eat buffet always beckons?

The same goes for a first impression that’s live, in-person, before your eyes and ears, right? Wrong. Or at least I was. 

After I stumbled across rising-Chicago band Company of Thieves at last fall’s CMJ Marathon at the Bowery Ballroom, I left impressed. Juxtaposed with the underwhelming and average sounds of so many other groups, Company of Thieves had a well-balanced and mature sound. The band’s songs seemed refreshingly melodic in that traditional rock ‘n’ roll way—and they weren’t another Brooklyn delegation by hailing from Chicago. Guitarist Marc Walloch’s playing initially impressed; the densely rich tone of singer and ringleader Genevieve Schatz’s flower-child ethos and effortless singing mesmerized. Surrounded by competent players, they formed a tight sound and became a relatively positive footnote in the long, hazy festival.

Imagine the surprise the band’s debut from Wind-up Records incurred, as familiarities of the band I saw seems to have been almost entirely displaced by a desultory band and sound. Said familiarities
protrude only in places (Walloch’s vibrant guitars and Mike Ortiz’s precise drumming). Most notable (and detrimental) are Schatz’s precarious and trite vocals; what seemed the band’s centerpiece that complimented the group became its albatross.

Lets begin, at least, with the best tracks. The laid-back tone of “Even in the Dark” gives Schatz’s voice a fighting chance, enabling the song’s soothing melody to linger. The song’s defiant message (“Gotta find your calling / Even in the dark”) was all the more moving this way.

“Oscar Wilde”, the designated single with a late-night performance to boot (“Last Call with Carson Daly”), gets off to a running start with catchy contrapuntal guitar riffs and an up-beat rhythm. Cunning is the onomatopoeic quality of the line, “We are all our own devil” during each chorus, making it the strongest line of the song.

“Pressure” stands out as the only track where Schatz takes any sort of control over a song, though, again, it really only happens during the chorus, making it the album’s recurring problem.

“Old Letters”, a brooding, promising, Fiona Apple-type intro welcomes us, but, almost instantly, Schatz’s vocals are airy and weak, pushing out more air than sound (not unlike a John Mayer ballad).  Then the album’s second recurring problem makes its way: Too many melodies meander. Productive bands always face this dilemma, but the best ones effectively pare down the music to its most fundamental and alluring components, something Company of Thieves could learn.

“In Passing” demonstrates the above two problems well. Schatz’s thin voice nearly vanishes on the “O” sound when she sings “’round”. Later, an ill-timed Latin bridge sounds forced, but its reprise is better placed and more fully realized.

After a blatant Steve Miller “Swingtown” rhythm part on “Under the Umbrella”, and a five-second pause after hard-strumming chords, Walloch seizes the spotlight with an extended outro lick that evolves into a chorus of “na-na-nas”.  But again, the outro is sonically unrelated to anything else going on in the preceding song, or album, and just seems like a means of giving Walloch free-reign over lots of improvisational space.

Overall, the lack of great melodies or compelling vocals leads to tedium. Good harmonies and arrangements can’t carry an album on its own, even if the frame outshines the painting.

It’s a shame only glimpses of Schatz’s total-vocal potential, which is consequently tied to the band’s, are present. More often than not her voice is breathy in the way that so many female vocalists think is seductive or emotive. Instead, her voice is flat and tenuous, only rising to the front of songs when mandated by the volume of a particular chorus. 

If Company of Thieves could convince Schatz to sing with a leading voice and focused its melodies, it might become the band I thought I heard six months ago.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/72927-company-of-thieves-ordinary-riches/