It's been five years in the making . . . was it worth the wait?
Curses, indeed. For a band who have nicknamed themselves the Hard Luck Five, even they couldn't have foreseen the small drama and long wait it would take for their fourth long-player to see the light of day. Though not quite Wilco-worthy in its theatrics, Curses still has the albatross around its neck of once being in the hands of a major label. After dispensing with their more eccentric (and uniquely endearing) tendencies for something far more straightahead on their third disc, On Top, Rye Coalition found themselves courted and signed to Dreamworks. With a few more bucks to throw at producing their next record, the band enlisted none other than Dave Grohl to twiddle the knobs. But as is usually the case with these kind of stories, downsizing and merging at the label soon left the band in an awkward position, and with their A&R reps now out on the street, the band was nothing more than another expense on the ledger. The band was subsequently dropped, and after a bit of wrangling, they got their album back for free and are finally releasing it on Gern Blandsten, their longtime indie label home.
Now before I dig into Curses, let's just take a look back for a moment at Rye Coalition's near decade-long trajectory. When the band first started out, their sound was a lean, stripped-down, and slightly rock 'n' roll take on post-rock. While the muscle has always been present, their earlier material boasted adventurous riffing and, at times, prog-like tendencies, as evidenced on their fan favorite (and often considered their masterpiece), "Romancing the Italian Horn". The first two albums, Hee Saw Duh Kaet and Lipstick Game, kept close to this template, and resulted in two fiery, eclectic offerings. The aforementioned, Steve Albini-produced On Top was decidedly different, turning up the classic rock and toning down the off-kilter rhythms that marked their earlier work. It was exciting, if somewhat predictable, but provided more than a few proud moments.
Which brings us back to Curses. What was hinted at with On Top has been fully realized with Curses. What emerges is an album that any major label would be happy to have. Safe, MOR, mesquite-flavored rock 'n' roll, arena-made and completely derivative. The impeccably produced, massive-sounding album is made all the more disappointing by the lukewarm songs. Guitarist Jon Gonnelli and Herb Wiley V seem content with major chord stomps and tired blues-based lead riffs. The lyrics are distinctly and vaguely about girls (with one token anti-war song), with enough "oh yeahs" and "alrights" to keep an FM station running all night. It's all energetically delivered, with twin guitar riffs, thunderous drums, throat-shredding vocals and a not very subtle Van Halen reference. Rye Coalition have taken the easy road, and while it might make for a great live show, it's a yawner on disc.
I won't be surprised if Rye Coalition eventually land at another major label. Curses is full of songs ready to fill in the spaces of WB teen soap dramas or extreme sports reality shows. Yep, frat boys and party girls will eat this one up. But for those of us who've been with the band since day one, it's disheartening to see them trade in their more exploratory tendencies for something revoltingly ordinary.