With their debut and sophomore releases on Deep Elm records, NYC four-piece Camber found themselves in the uneasy position of being in possession of a sound that virtually defined the much-maligned term "emo". Thing is, they were really good at it! Barry Lott was equally adept at anguished screaming and wounded crooning; his and Corby Caldwell's guitars gnashed fiercely, and the rhythm section of Chris Chin (drums) and Joey Dellacroce (bass) was agile and nimble, but also capable of delivering a fine pounding to the cranium.
However, it seems that all emo bands must, at one point or another, cave into the pressures of no longer being emo bands. Most of them have resolved this difficulty by attempting to morph into something approximating OK Computer-era Radiohead, with varying degrees of success. Camber, however, has decided to go the opposite route, and smooth out the knotty time changes and loud/soft dynamics that characterized their earlier work in favor of a more streamlined, less complicated, more straightforward sound.
There are also several personnel changes on Wake Up and Be Happy: drummer Chin has been replaced by Roger Coletti, and ace producer John Agnello, who helmed the sessions for both Beautiful Charade and Anyway I've Been There, Camber's first two records, has been replaced by some guy named Wayne Dorell. The latter of these replacements is particularly damaging to the band's sound -- while Agnello knew exactly what to do with Camber, resulting in crisp, clean recordings where every instrument was audible, Dorell, unfortunately, seems less practiced, and allows the band's sound to devolve into murk. Lott's and Caldwell's guitars, in particular, are much less distinct than on previous recordings, and in general, the record suffers from a rather muddy recording quality.
While the replacement of Chin with Coletti is less obvious than the producer swap detailed above, it certainly also results in a change in the band's sound, and I can't help but wonder how much Coletti had to do with the more straightforward sound that Camber tries on this time around. Chin was a jazzy, fancypants drummer, with all kinds of tricks up his sleeve. Coletti, on the other hand, prefers a plodding 4/4 to anything more interesting. While he's far from bad, and keeps time in an adequate fashion, he never quite excels. One of the most important things a heavy guitar rock band like Camber can have in their arsenal is an innovative, imaginative drummer, and unfortunately, they seem to have lost that when they lost Chin.
So, on to the songs. The record opens up with "Devil You Know", which, in addition to conjuring up unwanted images of early '90s one hit wonders Jesus Jones, also serves as an introduction to Camber's new sound. More obviously catchy than anything they've ever done, "Devil You Know" is probably the obvious choice for a single, and also sounds very little like anything else on the record. Seemingly an ode to complacency ("The devil you know beats the devil you don't/Though the offer does sound ace, I might miss my job, my place her face/What I do know is I just don't know/Can't just go leaping into space . . . I will decide/That I won't decide"). Here, Lott abandons his trademark croon 'n' scream style of singing, and sort of combines the two sides of his vocal personality to come up with a scratchy-voiced middle ground with a slight faux-Brit affectation that sounds more than a little bit like the Actionslacks' Tim Scanlin. This song marks the introduction of a less arty, more blue-collar version of Camber; one that, perhaps, thinks its new sound will allow it greater degrees of commercial success. While I will admit that "Devil You Know" is a catchy rock song, I honestly expect more from these guys than mere catchy rock songs.
The record's second track, "Short Sleeve", dives headfirst back into the Camber sound of old, with Lott sounding like a different singer altogether from the first track. The song is good, but it suffers from the muddy production that consistently plagues the rest of the record. It sounds oddly muffled, and serves to minimize the impact of a track that could potentially have been as powerful as anything else they've ever done.
Much of the rest of the record, unfortunately, suffers from leaden, unimaginative riffs and plodding drumbeats. Some of the songs, such as the title track, might be superficially catchy, but you'll realize while idly humming these songs to yourself that just because a song gets stuck in your head doesn't necessarily mean that you want it there. Songs like "Darling Daughter" and "Expat" join "Short Sleeve" in taking a stab at recapturing the glory of Camber's first two records, but are once again brought down by the muddy production, unimpressive drumming, and a general lack of the ferocious loud/soft dynamics that made their first two records so engaging.
While a band definitely needs to tweak its sound occasionally to keep itself fresh and vital, Camber seems to have turned the knob in the wrong direction. While Wake Up and Be Happy might be more accessible to a mainstream audience than their previous work has been, I don't believe that Camber has made the transition without adversely affecting the quality of their music. In an effort to smooth out the dissonance and rough edges that characterized their earlier efforts, they've also managed to bowdlerize the most interesting facets of their sound. Wake Up and Be Happy is not a bad record -- I've heard far worse so far this year. However, it simply does not measure up to their previous work. It remains to be seen whether or not this is merely a stylistic detour that Camber will rebound from, or the first sign of a band entering its years of decline.