I like to think that I'm an open-minded person when it comes to music, and that I won't be quick to judge a band based solely on the label they're on. But when a CD arrives in my mailbox bearing the Deep Elm logo on the artwork, my good intentions are thrown into question. Unfairly or not, Deep Elm is known as a label with a roster of sensitive boys with broken hearts who scream their anxieties over fairly generic post-punk guitar work. For every innovative "emo" band like Braid or Sunny Day Real Estate, there are about five lesser Deep Elm bands.
Thus it was with great hesitation I put the Desert City Soundtrack CD in my player. Expecting chugging guitars, angst-ridden boys yelling, and a fairly uninspired 40 minutes, I was surprised to hear a piano open the disc on the first track, "My Hell". Wait a second, are those horns I hear as well? Funeral Car, the debut album from Desert City Soundtrack, is a welcome change of pace from the usual Deep Elm stuff that finds its way into my CD player. Unfortunately, the band only lives up to its potential on half the disc, while settling into unnecessary emo theatrics for the other half.
At its best, Desert City Soundtrack evokes the musical horizons of San Diego bands Three Mile Pilot and the Black Heart Procession. "Drowning Horses" and "Take You Under", two of the best songs on Funeral Car, are sweeping in scope and beautifully atmospheric. When pianist Cory Gray is allowed to take center stage, Desert City Soundtrack's compositions are their most interesting and original. That Gray's background is in jazz and classical music is sometimes painfully apparent, as on lesser tracks he is forced to play down to somewhat pedestrian arrangements.
For every song that dares to take a chance, there is a song that mines clichéd emo territory. "These Games We Play", with a run time over six minutes, begins promisingly before leading to a typical wall-of-guitar-with-boy-screaming ending. "Drawn and Quartered", "Something about a Ghost", and "Westpoint" are also similarly bland.
What keeps the band from being a recommended listen are the obvious and literal lyrics. Even on their most poetic songs, the band can't lyrically rise to the occasion. "These two loveless arms sit so simple when you stayed over / One night some pillow lines stretched across morning light / Sleeping on bedroom walls / You said 'I remember why i loved you'", Matt Carillo sings on "My Hell". A quick scan through the Deep Elm website and these lyrics could be switched up with any other band on that roster and the difference wouldn't be noticeable. Love lost is the lyrical theme for Funeral Car, and Carillo is regrettably and awkwardly singing from the pages in his diaries.
Desert City Soundtrack's strength is pianist Cory Gray. A clearly gifted musician, the best songs on Funeral Car find Gray steering the music with his piano driven compositions. When the band chooses the easier way out with more conventional emo songwriting, the music suffers. Desert City Soundtrack definitely has the ability to create a great record that will not only set it apart from the Deep Elm roster, but put the band in a league of its own. However, it will be up to Desert City Soundtrack to recognize and play to its assets.