Least Ringing Endorsement of a Band's Abilities or Expectations, courtesy of Mars Arizona vocalist/guitarist Paul Knowles: "One of the goals that we wanted to accomplish in making [Love Songs From the Apocalypse] was to get all 'one star' reviews in every music magazine in the country. Three or even two stars would be just too much of a burden to carry around. I don't see how Beck and Neil Young deal with having so many stars in their Rolling Stone reviews. Having to live up to that kind of credibility night after night must be an incredible pressure."
While Knowles does have his tongue in his cheek, unlucky for him, his band's debut album, Love Songs from the Apocalypse, is not a one-star effort. (Though if I gave it a bad review, would Knowles be relieved? 'Cause doing so would make my job a lot easier.) What it is, however, is a collection of well-crafted gently rocking "folkadelic" tunes that will harm no one.
At least Mars Arizona -- vocalist Nicole Storto, vocalist/guitarist Paul Knowles, guitarist David Walker, bassist Sofa, drummer Michael Oliver and a handful of friends -- lives up to the dusty, sparse connotations of their name. A solid half of Love Songs from the Apocalypse's ten tracks are of the twangy variety, starting with the steel pedal inflected opener, "Promise Me Nothing". Sung by Storto, who calls to mind Beth Orton or Chrissie Hynde, "Promise Me Nothing" is straightforward roots rock, the kind the Jayhawks could craft in their sleep. Storto's voice is a warm treat, but there's nothing else remarkable about the song. The rest of the album is more interesting, as the band explores some less traveled musical roads.
"Voyeur", hinted at by Storto as either the flip side to the Police's "Every Breath You Take" or a musical riposte to liberty-curtailing legislation, turns down the twang and tosses in some of D.B. Walker's driving electric guitar between verses -- a clever counterpoint to the quietly-delivered unnerving lyrics ("How can I shake this feeling that you're always watching me?"). It's not until the third track, "Railroad Song", that Knowles grabs the mic. Where the instrumentation surrounding Storto is rich and lush (befitting her smoky voice), the band takes a more stripped-down tack on the tracks where Knowles sings. "Railroad Song" may be a tad earthy for some tastes -- one can almost feel the trail dust coming out of the speakers -- but Tom Heyman's pedal steel adds some nice flourishes. The same can be said about "Widow's Dream"; both tracks showcase the band tackling the musical style they do best, and plenty of people love modern folk, but it just puts me to sleep. That said, they do reach their zenith on a reverent take of the traditional "Farther Along".
Folkadelic may be Mars Arizona's strong suit, but the band has fun countering the spare minimalism of that style with the torchy "How Do I Get Sane" and covers of Concrete Blonde's "Bloodletting" and the Doors' "Alabama Song". Even if the tracks don't always "work", they're interesting experiments. On the latter, Robert Daniels' synth drops in some video game blips 'n' bloops behind Storto (who could make a living performing Doors' covers); it's as if someone was playing Galaga in the studio during recording. The band is having fun, and Storto is ace, but the band drops the Doors' unhinged merry-go-round sound and it leaves the song wanting.
Too many of Love Songs From the Apocalypse's tracks -- be it the poppier Storto tunes or Knowles' "folkadelica" -- don't stick to your ears; they're forgotten as soon as they're over. That's not to say the songs are bad, but to use Knowles' words, they're not Beck or Neil Young. I have heard the apocalypse, and it's a little bland. True, Love Songs from the Apocalypse isn't a one star album -- accomplishing that feat usually requires mountains of cocaine (hello, Aerosmith's Rock in a Hard Place!) -- but rather a safe, pleasant enough, middle of the road album. As I fumble with the concept of damning with faint praise, a punk band somewhere wishes they came up with the title Love Songs from the Apocalypse first.