Beaten Awake’s Thunder$troke has a distinctly ’90s sound. Not in a Nirvana (or Aqua) way — more that period post-grunge where it was okay to sing again, to play it loose and ramshackle, and not get caught down in false gravitas. As in slacker pop, best exemplified by Pavement or Archers of Loaf or Weezer. It was music that was less about emoting your diary entries and more a chance to get together and just have fun with your friends. Beaten Awake probably understand that better than most. These guys are long-time buddies, having served in several bands in their home state, Ohio.
With pop culture accelerating as fast as it is, I wonder if we may be witnessing the nascent start of a ’90s revival. Much like bands like Pavement or Sebadoh or the Fauves were a purging of the dourness that grunge offered, there seems to be a raft of bands recently leading the same kind of charge against the eyeliners and angst of emo.
Which is not to say that Beaten Awake can’t sound heartfelt or sincere — the catch in Jon Finley’s throat on “Gyro Quake” has more depth in its figurative fingernail than is found in MCR’s back catalogue. But the band often chooses to let the music do the emoting for them, their lyrics (and nonsensical titles) often just serving as words to hang the melody on. Even when the lyrics seem direct, their meaning often remains elusive, as if we are only getting part of the story. The band’s two distinctive vocalists are a particular drawcard. Joel McAdam’s David Berman-esque drawl and gift for half-awake melodies are nicely offset by Finley’s lighter touch (beautifully showcased on “Coming Home”). A sense of these two songwriters working discretely pervades the album. It’s not until you hear them sing together on album highlight “Mr. Thompson” that you realise what an opportunity they’ve squandered to include more of their interlocking voices.
Much like their ’90s contemporaries, they take strains of ’60s and ’70s pop and rock, then filter them through a Rube Goldberg-like contraption, spitting out scruffy odd-shaped versions of those classic rock tropes (“the ballad”, “the driving song”). The way the guitars crunch is sublime, and the drummer’s frequently laconic, “just about to fall off his stool” vibe makes me wish for an opportunity to see them on stage. Apart from the video game-esque effects introducing final track “I Shot The Mayor, Not The Deputy”, Thunder$troke sounds like five guys in a basement, the air between them, and nothing else (a good thing). The band clearly revels in the lost art of actually just playing guitar, using pedals and volume to achieve the required tones and textures rather than midi and Pro-Tools.
“Up from the bottom is where I shine” goes an early line on penultimate track “Halo V”, and it’s a genuine sing-along fist-pumping moment, an underdog statement of intent, and a glorious valediction. It’s the sound of these Ohioan friends, themselves having seen bands pick up and fall apart, once more going into the breach, in search of rock ’n’ roll immortality, and representing the hopes of every kid with a guitar and a dream. These guys may always be those scrappy underdogs, but we wouldn’t want it any other way.