On their second-full length, Portland piano-emo trio mature but fail to make a lasting impression.
The last time we heard from Desert City Soundtrack, they had just released their debut full-length Funeral Car. It was a middling effort that was hamstrung by theatrical emo posturing and woefully transparent lyrics. But it also offered a glimpse of hope, as songs like "Drowning Horses" and "Take You Under" proved that the band could write songs with depth and scope without being limited by genre conventions.
Now two years later, the band has returned with their sophomore offering Perfect Addiction. The distinctly rawer recording approach, thanks to producer Brandon Eggleston, is the first noticeable change from their first time out. It allows for a much more direct and immediate grasp of their often highly tuneful songs. The second, and perhaps most significant change, is the group members are finally all on the same level. On Funeral Car, classically trained pianist Cory Gray at times seemed to be outplaying his bandmates. Perfect Addition, though a pleasantly mature progression for Desert City Soundtrack, is an album that still lacks the identity of a fully realized group.
The album begins with its two strongest songs, "Last Night's Floor" and "Let's Throw Knives". The band's newfound cohesion shines brilliantly here, with all three member interlocking beautifully. Gray no longer appears to be on another planet, and stands proudly with his bandmates with parts that seem neither dumbed down or simplistic. The middle of the album brings another strong offering, "Batteries", which is nicely fleshed out with horns. And it is "Good Times Without" that holds up the latter third of the disc, with its wonderfully conjured-up atmosphere. The band even shines on the surprising mid-tempo bounce "Whatever The Cost", bringing to mind some of Built To Spill's best work. Unfortunately, their efforts are still dampened by a handful of misguided efforts and lyrics that are laughably bad.
It's hard to understand why a band so gifted at crafting moods would take a run at a standard rock number like "Playing the Martyr". Its pedestrian structure and dull execution are beneath a band of this caliber. The band also stumbles when they take on ideas that outsize their skill. The noisy, quasi-avant garde conclusion to "No Signal" just simply does not work. Making a lot of improvised noise doesn't necessarily mean you know what you're doing. And "Watering Hole" arrives near the end of the disc to nearly mock everything before it, with painfully painstaking rendering of "slowcore" which lacks the kind of richness the band is capable of bringing to this material.
While Desert City Soundtrack may have taken steps toward refining its sound, the lyrics still feel like an afterthought. Lines like, "Stopped in a local watering hole / the same place you found to hate me / strange a year later I see you there / we're not talking, there's nothing left to say / I won't forgive you, no not like this", and "I thought I had you figured out / I never felt so wrong / you held my arm and stared me dead in the eyes / I've been nothing but patient with you" sound like they were mined from teenage MySpace blogs. Desert City Soundtrack needs lyrics that will match the rich musical poetry of their best songs, instead of being, at their worst, thoroughly distracting.
Though Desert City Soundtrack have taken strides in refining their sound, they are still stumbling over some very major roadblocks. As a group they have yet to find that delicate mix of songwriting and performance that will help them find their own voice. Perfect Addiction is a perfectly conventional exercise, one that is hardly worth seeking out.