This is probably no fault of the band’s, but when I got the MP3s of Lawrence, Kansas-based folk rockers Fourth of July’s new and third album, Empty Moon, I received a surprise. I’ve never obtained files where the titles of the songs were delivered in ALL CAPS, also known as the Internet’s International Language of Screaming. It’s a bit strange, for if you were to listen to Empty Moon, you’d hear that these are lazy, jangly sounds delivered by a somewhat tight band enamoured with the sound of the Hold Steady filtered through a country lens and the subject of alcohol abuse (see the song “Drinking Binge”). Lead singer Brendan Hangauer has a voice that sounds like a cross between a bored David Lowery of Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven and an even slacker Stephen Malkmus — not exactly the most affecting thing to listen to. So this isn’t exactly an excitable group. And that’s the real problem with Empty Moon: while it’s competent enough, the set is delivered largely with hardly a hint of emotion or alt-rock authenticity, and a great deal of the songs feel repetitive and reaching for some level of unattainable significance. Empty Moon even feels like a joke at times (see “Eskimo Brothers”), just one without a punch line in sight.
There’s some level of recycling on the album, as well: there’s a song called “Before Our Hearts Explode”, which happens to be the title of the group’s previous album — not really egregious in and of itself, for Led Zeppelin pulled a similar trick with “Houses of the Holy”, but Fourth of July is no Led Zeppelin. So, Empty Moon sounds a little like a band that’s running out of ideas, one whose needle is close to hitting E. That said, the record isn’t a total wash-out. The horns used on the title track, while brief, are a nice touch. “Colorado”, with its pedal steel flourishes, is kind of appealing in a rather homely way, and it may be the best thing on Empty Moon. “Berlin” is a kind of enjoyable strum, too, even if it doesn’t sound like the album ender it is. And I suppose there’s a level of charm to some of these songs in a rather Generation X-esque, “I don’t care” kind of way, even though there’s nary a bridge or chord progression shift anywhere in sight (until you get to the choruses, at least) on most of this material that would really help make things more interesting. Basically, the record is filled with overlong songs that do very little: “The Cost” rambles on for nearly seven minutes and “Before Our Hearts Explode” hits the five minute mark and utterly misses as a song — Hangauer’s voice practically disappears at times here. Maybe the album would get better if one were to increase his or her level of inebriation, as the band sounds like they’ve spent a great deal of time at the beer taps as a means of finding inspiration. Still, if you’re dead sober, the lopsided and rather sub-par Empty Moon only really offers up the fact that Fourth of July turn out to be a band, alas, hardly worth screaming about unless you’re already a dedicated follower.