If one of the primary goals of Consonant's new CD, Love and Affliction, was to capture a better representation of the band's live sound as compared to the sound of their previous album (recorded before the band had performed live), then it's an instant success.
The opening guitar crunch of "Little Murders" makes an instant impact, noisier and chunkier than anything on their excellent debut. The drums slam and tumble with only two snare hits thrown among the cymbal crashes that move things along. It's a great example of the band's remarkable control and professionalism; their craft and attention to detail never really feel contrived and add an element to the music that is missing from that of most other rock bands. Live, they produce a sound that wraps you up, sometimes in spite of yourself. They use their combined experience to produce a controlled burn of an attack; building a tension and providing release without telegraphing their moves or overstating their case. Even when you can see the changes coming, you're still surprised because of how good it feels and how well it all works.
The all-star band remains intact from the previous album; Clint Conley (Mission of Burma), Chris Brokaw (Come, the New Year, Codeine), Matt Kadane (Bedhead, the New Year) and Winston Braman (Fuzzy, the Count Me Outs), with Bob Weston again behind the recording, and they show off a collection of songs that, while being a bit more hit-and-miss, show diversity, with the best of them being more satisfying than any that were among the first batch that Conley wrote after his musical hiatus of almost 20 years. The playing is more cohesive and the writing more confident; if, with their first album, fans and critics were mostly excited just to have him back, with his second album Conley knows that he needs to make a case for staying around.
The disc also helps further make the case for Matt Kadane as one of the best rock drummers currently playing. As opposed to solely anchoring the group he fits perfectly in with everything happening around him. His playing is as musical as any other instrument in the mix; just listen to the way that the drums sweep into "Dumb Joy", lifting the song off the ground. Every note that he plays makes perfect sense while still feeling as if they're coming from out of nowhere.
The same thing can be said for Consonant in general. The songs don't take you anywhere that you haven't been, but at their best they make the devices that they employ feel as good and as natural as the first time that you heard them used. It's the line that they walk and it's why, when songs aren't working, they can come across as particularly less-than-exciting. The high points, though, are made that much better, and Love and Affliction is consistently worthwhile.
When they find a hook, particularly the one they roll out for the chorus of "Mysteries of the Holiday Camp", they keep things brief. Some might find the songs anti-climactic because they tend to wander a bit too much. The songs are mostly linear, and they don't generally have the gratification of really great pop if only because they shy away from repetitiveness. For the most part they show no need to tie-up loose ends or return to big choruses. When things really slip, they can start to feel a bit self-indulgent, which is only really a problem if you come to the CD expecting anthems. You can go through the disc a few times and not necessarily walk away with a guitar lick or catchy phrase stuck in your head. Nothing here is really instantly digestible, but while it's playing you'll let the band pull and push you and the hints at pop will keep drawing you in closer to listen harder. It may come with age -- losing that need to try and impress -- and as a group Consonant seems to feel comfortable in its skin. It must be nice.
Like on the last album, the slower songs don't work quite as well as the hard hitters, and though they can generally bend their prog tendencies into an indie-rock psychedelia, they sometimes veer a bit off course into scary art-rock ("Cauldron"). The lyrics, composed by both Conley and poet Holly Anderson and coming across with a few too many jagged edges, don't always sit in nicely with the music. Like the music, though, they show little need to come across as clever, and when all the pieces settle into being concise yet jagged power pop ("Little Murders" and "Dumb Joy" in particular, along with moments of "Hell-Blonde", "Are You Done?" and "Mysteries of the Holiday Camp") they strike gold.
The last time I saw them live, which I highly recommend doing, especially considering how infrequently they tour (you can see them in late September on tour with Evan Dando), they encored with two note-perfect Buzzcocks covers: "I Don't Mind" and "Everybody's Happy Nowadays". It was telling because you can clearly hear their influence, especially on Conley's vocals, the sometimes-jittery guitar lines, and the effortless melodies. Above all, the group had the good taste to pick the songs and the skills to pull them off so well. Consonant's best songs can get you excited in the same way that the Buzzcocks can, and without a single nod to fashion or gross careerism coming across in the music, they can be enjoyed without qualification.