One reason nouveau traditional genres like roots rock or twang arise is to offer new expressive tropes when the old ones wear out. Rock and pop have their own limited conventions — as do country music and other traditional genres like bluegrass-but when people with an urban, pop sensibility adopt the conventions of country music to express themselves, the result is often revitalizing on both sides. Take for example the New York alt-twang band Clem Snide’s Your Favorite Music, which blends the timeworn, depressive homilies of melancholy pop with the timeless, mournful strains of traditional upright bass and fiddle. Whereas the country singer might use the same backdrop to warble on about his pickup, his hound dog, and his cheating woman, Clem Snide’s compositions frame a heartbreak littered with references to Dairy Queen, tanning salons, and flickering television screens. The music offers a way out of pop’s necessary (and, Radiohead apologists aside, futile) anxiety to reinvent itself. And, it does it without sacrificing themes that might be relevant to oneself (if you are a young, urban person and not a creased old rancher) or, more cynically, to one’s demographic.
Before this starts to sound like one of the more overwritten chapters of a Greil Marcus book, I’ll get to the point: these genres risk failure for the same reasons that they offer a chance at redefinition. In other words, simply jumping onto the twang bandwagon as it jangles past does not an innovative or expressive record make. And it may be all too easy to let the formal characteristics of each genre in the mix substitute for thoughtfulness and depth in composition. Lucky 57, whose members are all veterans of the Boston indie rock scene, seem to have suffered this pitfall with their first release, Lovely Melancholy.
Which isn’t to say there’s no potential here. In particular, Kip McCloud’s voice has a low, velvety texture that has earned her comparisons to Chrissie Hynde. She hasn’t got Hynde’s attitude or intelligence (and how many of us do?), but with a little more imaginative songwriting, she might at least get in the ballpark. Sue Metro’s lap steel is tasteful without missing any opportunities to up the mournful factor, and Rustle Chud’s guitar is tight and light-fingered enough to make me believe all of the old fashioned licks he keeps serving up, even if they’re a little stale.
Yet there’s still something missing, something that keeps this album from being either lovely or melancholy. Lyrically, the emotions expressed seem to vary between shallowly self-affirming kiss-off numbers (“Done” and “All the Places (You Hide Out)”) and vague blues (“Lee’s World”, “Never Quite Good Enough Blues”). Nowhere do I find the kind of obsessed, haunted quality hinted at in the album’s title — the kind of sadness that perversely fascinates and soothes us.
Musically, Lucky 57 seems to be at its best when it attempts a sort of Eighties-style rock rough and ready approach, as on “All the Places (You Hide Out)” and “Chance Meeting”. In twangland, however, these guys just don’t seem familiar enough with the genre to really explore it. Perhaps in a few albums (keep listening to that Gram Parsons!) they’ll be comfortable enough to get outside the standard riffs and rhythms and into a place where who they are and how they play come together in a fresh way.