There is a nearly unbreakable rule in rock: You can't go wrong with a banjo. Songs from Octant's "Mince Up" to Broken Social Scene's "Anthems for a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl" all benefit beautifully from some good pluckin'. A corollary to this theorem is that a handclap can do no harm. You put this concept to the test on your own time, but a couple of good places to start your search are the Meters and the first track from the New York City band Breaking Laces.
That song, "God in Waiting", opens with a spicy kick-drum and handclap rhythm, and all is suddenly right with the world. "God in Waiting" is about as perfect a single as has ever existed. It's relentlessly catchy, clever and self-deprecating all at once ("No time for fornication / But when I quit my paper route / She'll want my body").
Breaking Laces bill themselves as an indie nerd-rock outfit, complete with black plastic glasses and songs about being gigantic nerds. sohcahtoa, the inscrutable title of their debut album, should bring fear to the hearts of math-phobes everywhere: Sine = opposite/hypotenuse, Cosine = adjacent/hypotenuse, Tangent = opposite/adjacent.
Yes, the boys of Breaking Laces used trigonometry to name their album. But it's not math-rock. Nor is it particularly nerdy, despite songs with titles like "Geek in Love" and "Global Warming Day". There is, however, a lot of promise on this album, a great deal of potential that is only intermittently realized.
Chief Breaking-Lacer Willem Hartong definitely puts the nerd in Breaking Laces' nerd-rock; according to his bio on the band's Web site, "he's a rated chess master, avid reader and writer, trivia whiz, and has a near par handicap. He also has invented his own dialect appropriately named 'Willemese'."
As the man behind the music (band-mates Rob Chojnacki and Seth Masarsky joined after Hartong finished sohcahtoa to take the Laces on the road), Hartong has cleverness to spare, and a perfect rock and roll voice: good tone, great falsetto, a touch of rasp, a pinch of nasality and just the right amount of whine. His songs are well crafted and on the best tracks he's created marvelous tension between music and vocals.
When Breaking Laces rocks, it rocks hard. "God in Waiting" is worth the price of admission all by itself. The other standout track on sohcahtoa, "Global Warming Day", mines a similar vein, with punchy guitars, shouted background vocals, and a generally infectious melody.
Beyond these high notes, sohcahtoa wallows in a blander form of rock. At its best, as on "Okay" and "Light Up for Me", it's pleasant but smacks of by-the-numbers music composition. The nadir of the album is "Meagan", a well-intentioned love song that devolves into painfully generic soft-rock balladry.
The road to rock stardom is littered with the bones of clever pop rock. Apparently Harvey Danger, the creators of my last favorite pop song, "Flagpole Sitta", are apparently still performing, but have long since dropped from the cultural radar. On the other end of the spectrum, a band like Weezer has carved a place in the rock pantheon with their own clever, perfectly constructed rock marvels. Breaking Laces definitely achieve some Weezer-like moments on sohcahtoa, but here's to hoping that Willem Hartong and Breaking Laces can perfect their formula.
In the meantime, I'm waiting for the day when someone releases a single that's all handclaps and banjos. It will be the sweetest sound you've ever heard, or I'll give up my tenure as a rock scholar.