Emotionally laden rock 'n' soul from -- sorry, did you say Connecticut?
Trivia question: Name a major rock band -- hell, a major band of any type -- based out of Hartford, Connecticut. It's okay, we'll wait.
Doesn't seem fair, does it? Nearby New York has a lion's share of famous acts -- Lou Reed, the Ramones and much of the rest of first-wave punk, the Strokes, Anthrax, Public Enemy -- while Boston to the northeast can claim Aerosmith, The Cars, Boston, and (cough) 'Til Tuesday. Hell, even Providence, Rhode Island is home to Talking Heads and underground rapper Sage Francis.
But when it comes to nationally recognized musical acts, Hartford -- the insurance capital of the nation, kids! -- is woefully thin.
Bronze Radio Return just might change that. The Hartford sextet's second album, Old Time Speaker, is a strong set of tunes that showcases lively musicianship, sophisticated arrangements, and a wide array of sounds, most notably Chris Henderson's wistful, mournful, white-boy-soulful voice. That voice is the dominant feature of Bronze Radio Return's sound, by turns pleading, insistent, and mournful, and always sincere. A band could build itself around a voice like that. This band has.
Opener "Lo-Fi" rushes from the speakers riding a wave of urgent percussion, keys, and guitar, steered by Henderson's husky, smoke-and-whiskey voice. "Digital Love" immediately changes the vibe to an almost cabaret style, with dancing piano underlying a tale of -- well, it's not entirely clear what's going on here. "I'm an analog man with a digital case of you," Henderson tells us, which oddly enough makes a certain kind of sense.
Things take a distinct turn for the heavier with "It's OK Now", with its throbbing drums and sinister guitar licks lurking in the background. Despite the reassuring title, one can't shake the feeling that actually, things aren't totally OK now. Moreover, one can't help noticing that the opening three songs have channeled three very different vibes, each of them compelling in its own way. Will the trend continue?
Indeed it does. And while "Strawberry Hill" is less interesting in its mellow, guitar-strummy gentleness than what we've heard so far, the fact remains that this is a band seemingly intent on trying something different with every song.
The rest of the album doesn't quite live up to the promise of the opening trifecta, but highlights abound nonetheless. "Wolves" is a slow burner that starts with Henderson strumming his acoustic and murmuring softly before building to a climax that rolls along under an irresistible momentum. "Cannonball" is a bluesy number that shows Henderson's voice to good effect, while Matt Warner's keyboards add texture and Patrick Fetkowitz's guitar is pleasantly scratchy.
The standout track on the back half of the album is "Pullin' on the Reins." Coincidentally or not, it's also the longest song on the record (but with all the songs shorter than 4:15, that's not saying a great deal). "Pullin' on the Reins" launches with sprightly keyboards, but soon develops into something heavier, as the lyrics reflect a general distrust of government control, or possibly societal control, or maybe it's familial control. Whatever -- the chorus is catchy as hell. With any luck at all, it'll be enough to put the Hartford music scene on the map. Lighters in the air, everybody!