The road to success in the music business is unknowable. A lucky few manage it, whilst countless others compile tales of trying to reach that magic goal. For the talented Dallas-bred band of self-proclaimed computer geeks/musicians known as Chomsky, there are hopes that the third time will be the charm.
After two critically praised and self-funded albums on local Dallas indie label Idol Records, the band has slimmed down to a quartet and signed on with Arizona-based Aezra Records, a larger indie with far better methods of distributing the music to a wider audience. The hope is that Let's Get to Second will indeed propel them a bit farther along in their quest.
Let's Get To Second features four re-recorded songs from those first two albums (three from Onward Quirky Soldiers and one from A Few Possible Selections for the Soundtrack of Your Life) and eight new tracks. On board to help with production duties is Gary Katz, who was instrumental early on in Steely Dan's career. Katz (and former Talking Head Jerry Harrison, who helped in the mix as well) seems to prefer a more uniform "in-your-face" take on the mixes. The guitars get less emphasis on some songs this way, but the additional polish focuses more on the raw energy of the music (making the songs perhaps a tad more commercial radio-ready). Chomsky never lacks for vitality; indeed the syncopated punch is their stock-in-trade.
Their sounds remain very much an updated version of Drums And Wires-era XTC, with traces of the Police and the Cars thrown in for good measure. There's also a healthy bit of Weezer geek rock influence, the anger of a young Elvis Costello, and the pure vigor of more modern components like Blink-182 or Ultimate Fakebook.
"Light" leads off the proceedings, a song about asking for honesty amid deceptions and falsehoods, a cry for purity in a corrupt world: "Give it to me all at once / Hit me with your strong full force / Pain will wash everything gone / And I'll keep moving on rest assured / I won't slow down / I will run". It's a more forceful and upbeat version than on their previous record. Here is guitarist/lead vocalist Sean Halleck doing his update on Andy Partridge, Glen Reynolds and his superb lead guitar doing his Dave Gregory, James Driscoll doing his Colin Moulding on bass and Matt Kellum approximating Terry Chambers' power drumming.
"Animal" is a direct tribute to Andy Partridge (and his song "Newtown Animal in a Furnished Cage" off XTC's White Music), lamenting the evils of a heartless society blinded by bling-bling's shine that overbuilds and over-reacts without clear reason: "Buildings fill the sky / In steel birds I'll fly / Empty the sea, fell every tree and don't bother asking why".
The popular Chomsky anthem "00:15:00" (a.k.a. "Fifteen Minutes to Rock") is back again, re-recorded to better reflect its inimitable vigor. This is a fun song (though the band might be getting sick of it by now), driven by Halleck's emotive vocals and Reynolds' great, often dissonant percussive guitar work. This is rock as universal panacea, and you can't deny a line like "I am only happy when it's possible".
"Gravitate" is also back, another re-done infectious little ditty that builds slowly as it plays lyrically with possible sexual metaphors: "Get good elevation feel burn in your spark / Move in all directions laughing in the dark / What you do to me / Sweet sharp sheen you float telepathically / Overshot the window, overshot the mark". The song, from Chomsky's first record "Sigmund", gets a nice overhaul here. Reynolds does an incredible job of using his guitar like a percussion instrument (in a very early XTC-way) -- and he drives the song just as much as Kellum does on drums. The vocals are great, and Chomsky manages to create the type of sound you thought was lost decades ago.
"Escape" is a little less XTC, a little more the Police and the Cars, with vocals up front and synth sounds contributing more to the overall mix. "Fine" has more attitude than one usually finds in a single, and tons more syncopated rhythm. Halleck again sells the song with great vocals.
There's a short Beach Boys' type harmonic lead-in to "Doves", one of the songs that strays a bit from the drums and wires formula. Here, the mix emphasizes the vocals and harmonies, the guitar played down as integral part of the whole, for a muddier yet more modern commercial rock sound. It's an interesting departure, but it works.
Reynolds' guitars are back in force in "Over", another song seemingly geared toward the listening mainstream. Halleck's vocals are very out front, more in the style of Fountains of Wayne, and the song features more clever lyrics, infectious melody and hooks galore.
"Whippoorwill" brings Chomsky back to that XTC-syncopated sound (hard to do, kudos to Kellum and Driscoll), with Halleck shouting out his lead vocals effectively. "Clockwork" seems a lesser song here, decent enough and geared toward being commercial, but in comparison to the others it falls short except when rescued by Reynolds' guitars.
"Circle" completes the CD, an extended jam of a song that reminds me stylistically of XTC's "Roads Girdle the Globe". There's just enough dissonance and rhythmic swagger here -- but those who aren't fans of that sound might not stick around for the full six minutes.
I remain a big fan of that sound (it was the percussive guitar work that first got me interested in XTC). Chomsky present an impressive updating of that sound, and do so with clever lyrics and smart arrangements. They aren't a complete secret, having won awards for Album of The Year and Best Rock/Pop Act from The Dallas Observer. In fact, just recently, the song "00:15:00" was picked up for use by the Dallas Cowboys in their pregame television show. If they are indeed America's team, could widespread acceptance of Chomsky be far behind?
Halleck knows their music is eclectic. "We're too indie for mainstream and too mainstream for indie", he notes. Yet he and the band seem happy located in that musical limbo. While some fans might feel the content contains a little too much recycled from previous efforts, Let's Get to Second remains a solidly impressive effort toward gaining that wider audience this talented band truly deserves.