[22 June 2009]
The city of Detroit may be lying ass-up in the ditch, but its rock bands are still alive and kicking. To wit, the Hard Lessons, who, four years ago, sprouted out of the hard, but remarkably fertile Motor City soil fully-formed on their debut, Gasoline, mixing alt-country twang and garage fierceness with a confidence and aplomb that belied their relative greenness. I reviewed the album back in 2005, hinting that their sophomore disc would benefit from a more country vibe and more vocals from co-lead singer Korin Cox (now Korin Visocchi, but more about that later). As is often the case, though, my suggestions have been ignored… and with strong results, even though, like their hometown, the Hard Lessons find themselves starting over.
A few legal and lineup changes help explain the long layoff between records: Cox and co-singer Augie Visocchi got married (or else he adopted her; she’s Korin Visocchi now) and the couple parted ways with drummer Christophe Zajac-Denek—the liner notes thank a handful of drummers for manning the kit both in the studio and on the road recently (though the band’s MySpace page welcomes a new drummer, Ryan Vee, into the fold). Too, and more importantly, the countryish touches that made Gasoline such a winner have largely fallen by the wayside, but the new influences—power pop, more straightahead indie rock, and a further (now marital) exploration of boy/girl vocal dynamics and themes—reveal a band that knows where it wants to go.
Korin’s big, brassy vocals remain in place—it’s too strong a weapon to be neutralized—as on the torchy “The Memo” and “Take It Over”. That is, until Augie’s fuzzed-out guitar crashes the party. And even when she dials it down, as she does on the sweet, folky “St. Christopher”, she requires a small orchestra behind her to appropriately complement her voice. That said, the album’s biggest misstep occurs on her vocal watch: the Krautrock-meets-Italy-meets-AutoTune trainwreck “Roma Termini”; it’s as ill-advised as that description makes it out to be. And sonics aside, given the rest of the album’s down-to-earth, twentysomethings-drinking-living-and-loving-in-the-city vibe, “Roma Termini” simply doesn’t fit. When the duo keeps it gimmick-free, though,—which, thankfully, is most of the time—good things happen. They duet beautifully on the closing ballad “I Can’t Sleep”, and trade verses while swooning over each other on the pure pop “See You Again” (“When I get back home, I’d really like to see you again”. Ah, newlyweds.)
To these ears, though, the Korin-led songs ain’t got nothing on Augie’s tunes. The title track and “Sound the Silent Alarm” boast an air of danger and frustration, hearkening back to earlier Motor City efforts from the White Stripes and Von Bondies, respectively. His aforementioned power-pop chops shine through on “Made to Last”, the strutting “Tired Straits (Nothing but Time)” and tongue-twisty, joyously silly “Irish Wristwatch”—good luck getting the chorus of “Betty better butter Brad’s bread / With that said / Your invite’s inviting / Now drop dead!” out of your head once you hear it.
Taken as a whole, Arms Forest plays like a AAA-level version of X’s seminal Wild Gift: like John Doe and Exene Cervenka, the Visocchis are young marrieds in love (“Wedding Ring”, which earned a spin on Grey’s Anatomy a few weeks back), they’re broke (“The Arms Forest”), but they’ve got each other (“See You Again”) and they’ve got a kickass band. And while they’ve half-pushed the reset button since Gasoline, they sound like a band with a plan, and one that won’t take four years to prep album number three. Now here’s hoping their career is half as strong as X’s, and their marriage ten times stronger than Doe’s and Cervenka’s was.