Thought exercise: Let's say you're part of a rock band and you have access to a time machine -- would you go back to 1962 to meet the Beatles, or to1997 when punk broke? Or would you choose something a little more subtle -- say, 1992, avoid the Seattle Scene and head for Boston, when Buffalo Tom's Let Me Come Over dropped? While many would pick the earlier epochs, NYC-based Heroes of the Alamo opt to take the road not taken so often anymore on their self-released debut, 98 to 1.
Let me clarify. Heroes of the Alamo has two principle songwriters -- guitarists David Makuen and Todd Carlstrom -- who are ably backed by a rhythm section of bassist Richard Brown and percussionist Kevin Slane. It's Makuen who has the Buffalo Tom jones. This might be traceable to the fact that Makuen's voice is a dead ringer for that of BT frontman Bill Janovitz, but that doesn't explain that the musicians sound like BT. It's all not-quite alt-country, occasional punk snarl and more often than not, plain old workmanlike indie rock.
98 to 1 opens with a Makuen-penned track, "Not My Fault", a moody slice of post-grunge college rock. If I were ten years old, this might strike me as nostalgic. As it is, drummer Slane's percussion is annoying and guitarist Carlstrom's too fuzzed out solo is distracting. These are problems that plague 98 to 1 throughout -- especially the guitars. Someone needs to tell these guys muddled does not equal fuzzed out, and that "garage rock" is not necessarily a literal term. For a band that plays crisp rock on paper, the murkiness that haunts the album's production threatens to derail the album at times. Those quibbles aside, Makuen and Carlstrom know how to pen a catchy tune.
Carlstrom's first standout track, "Jean" -- one of the band's singles (so says the press release) -- is vaguely Mod, with a half-pace surf-inflected solo, and full of anguish as the narrator laments that the title character "married someone named Dale". It sounds dopey, but it works. One might be tempted to call Carlstrom the Chris Colbourn (BT's other lyricist) to Makuen's Janovitz, but if anything, Carlstrom draws from Phish's Trey Anastacio. Both have similar voices, casually drop people's names into lyrics, and lapse into quasi-speaking instead of singing. Of course, Heroes of the Alamo still sound like Buffalo Tom, even when Carlstrom is singing. "Cleaning Woman", the other "single", also doubles as one of the album's highlights. Makuen crafts a clever character study of a man who wonders if the titular character has feelings for him and lingers over his things while performing her duties. Carlstrom's guitar actually rings through the muck for once and his angular solo puts the song on edge (it's a creepy song about a cleaning woman, after all). And how many other songs could count Luke Wilson's character from Bottle Rocket as a potential influence?
It's not all roots rock though. "One Step Closer" and "Survival Waltz" are (of course) BT-style punkers (à la Sleepy Eyed's "Stripes"). On "One Step Closer", Carlstrom leaves spittle on the microphone assuring a foe that he'll be "driving spikes into your coffin". The "Survival Waltz" features an amusing, if crass, line about cunnilingus: "If you were near me / I'd wear you like a grin / Sitting on my face / Dripping on my chin". And that's delivered during one of the song's quiet parts. The quiet parts don't last long, as the song finishes up with a snarl, and then, of all things, an Irish jig.
The back half of 98 to 1 isn't as memorable as its front half, and it's a result of weaker material and track sequencing. On the first half, the tracks alternated between Makuen's and Carlstrom's contributions; the listener never got used to one style and was able to synthesize both into a "Heroes of the Alamo sound". No such luck on Side B, as its bulk is comprised of three serviceable Makuen tracks -- "That Kind of Girl", "Navigator", and "Old Bikes and Car Parts". There's nothing wrong with these songs, there's just nothing going for them, either -- though I do like "Navigator"'s bass line and mandolin coloring. By the time the album's final two tracks -- Carlstrom's "Acquiescing" and "Gavin's Perambulator" -- arrive, you're too accustomed to Makuen's delivery and too lethargic to go find a dictionary to look up meanings for "acquiescing" and "perambulator". Not to wallow in anti-intellectualism, but no one in rock gets passionate about "acquiescing" to some one. It's a shame, since the brooding "Acquiescing" is easily one of 98 to 1's most powerful moments.
The album ends on a silly/dark note with "Gavin's Perambulator" about a jealous older brother wishing harm on a younger sibling motoring around in, um, a perambulator. It's the best instance of HotA letting their hair down, though it suffers from overuse of the word "perambulator".
Heroes of the Alamo need to clean up their guitar muck, write (and sequence) a second half of an album, and then they'll be onto something. They've got the chops, but as it stands now, 98 to 1 marches to Buffalo Tom's drummer.