It's a matter of quality -- with their fifth release, Incorporated, Splitsville has never been in a better space. Confident, assured and able to transcend a variety of musical styles, these are guys who know their stuff and deliver it with a level of studio expertise that approaches fine art. What's more, they manage to retain the atmosphere of fun that has always been their trademark.
This ten-track gem of an album grows on you, releasing its diverse surprises and subtle hooks over the course of repeated listens. At first listen, you might think it's decent. By the tenth listen, you'll know it's superb. That is the musical magic perpetrated by veteran power pop rockers Splitsville (formed out of the ashes of the Greenberry Woods) in this, their latest and arguably greatest yet.
The band has become a solid quartet with the addition of talented guitarist/vocalist Tony Waddy. He joins the seasoned lineup of the twin brothers Huseman (Matt on guitar and lead vocals primarily, Brandt on drums, percussion and vocals) and Paul Krysiak (bass, keyboards and vocals), and the results are mighty fine.
Working again with producer Dave Nachodsky, Splitsville assemble a set that covers a fairly good expanse of musical styles (but perhaps not quite so wide a realm as the selections found on 1998's Repeater) in a clean, controlled way. There is nothing casual or happenstance about this music -- it's all well thought out and expertly executed, from the nuances and leads to the clever lyrics.
The opening track, "White Dwarf", moves between soft and hard, going from gently strummed opening guitar and bass to the heavy driving chords that back most of this spare lyrical contemplation of our cosmic inadequacy in communicating our ideas, dreams, and spiritual aspects. There's a wonderful Tony Waddy guitar lead in mid-song that grows before the singer's eventual concession to keep his feet "on solid ground".
The infectious "Brink" finds Splitsville back in familiar territory -- rocking and having fun whilst exploring the relationship between bands, their fans, and musical choices. Brandt and Paul show why their rhythm section is second to none, as Splitsville come out against the fakery of other bands, and for music that rocks and doesn't suck. My favorite parts here are those that add subtle fun: a harmonic nod to Van Halen's "Dance the Night Away" and the slight delay before the word "delay".
"Heart Attack" is a strange hybrid that works well. Blend the funk of Hendrix with imagery that recalls John Cougar Mellencamp's heartland characters, then mix it up with strong beats and delayed line repeats and you'll get an approximation of the strange energy that fuels this eclectic yet irrepressible song. Once the song catches you, you'll be amazed at how many elements work effectively as clever hooks.
"Headache" is about as catchy as any Fountains of Wayne song, yet manages to take on the world's worries and concerns, a ruined day hiding from the bad news outside and stuck in a distant relationship and more -- well, it's more than enough to give anyone a headache (and also gives a tip o' the hat to John Lennon's "nothing's gonna change my world"). I bet you'll find yourself humming the backup "I know" vocals inadvertently.
"The Next One" is a power ballad partly about a desire to escape the nightmare of life's addictions (drugs, alcohol) and the false hope that someone else will turn one's ship around: "I'd do anything to get you out of here / Stained in chemicals / Soaked in mother's tears / Faceless criminals are puncturing your skin / Life is pouring out / But love is rushing in".
Perhaps the prettiest track here is the Beatle-esque "Sasha", in which a friend offers consolation and advice to one who runs away from the people who love her: "No one's perfect / Don't you know that this is part of the design / Close your eyes and try to remember that everything will be alright". Matt Huseman dishes up emotive vocals to pop perfection, and a home tape recording "demo" serves as poignant coda.
There's not a weak track among the ten. Everybody's favorite state is the target of "California", portrayed here as the last mindless stop, a host of natural disasters waiting to happen (fires in the San Fernando Valley, tremors in San Francisco, etc.): "Now you're over, done, you're undermined / Last cigarette on the firing line / You're into the blue / You're out of mind / Now we have California". Check out the fine harmonies (Splitsville always makes it sound easy), the great leads, and the excellent middle bridge. This is power pop at its rocking best.
As these guys mature, there's a greater complexity in much of the songwriting and arrangements. That's evident here even on a somewhat somber adult ballad. "The Mentalist" features a narrator dissatisfied with life, used and not trusting, uncomfortable in his own skin and wanting a second chance on life ("blissfully ignorant and easily satisfied"), who comes to the ultimate realization that "it's hard to be the strong one".
Those aching for the post-punk fun of those early Splitsville releases will find comfort in "Trouble". It's the tale of the opinionated and wrong-headed Cathy, who espouses nothing but trouble. Here again the fine skills of the rhythm section are in evidence, from Paul Krysiak's limber and smooth bass lines (and lead), to Brandt Huseman's drumming.
The CD closes with a quiet relationship song that manages to transcend the usual. "I Wish I Never Met You" deals with the situation of the friend who wishes he was more than that, and does so admirably well. Here are some of the wonderful lyrics: "You never show me the poetry you keep under your bed / The sentimental stories and bitter words you wish you might have said / That crawl up through the top sheet and penetrate my sweet dreams 'til I'm the one that can't sleep".
As a full-fledged quartet who tour regularly, Splitsville is a tight band that isn't afraid to flaunt their musical skills to great advantage. That they manage to do so with such a level of consistently fine songcraft is the real wonder. Then again, perhaps the biggest mysteries are why they're not better known, their music not wildly popular.
This superb album is extremely well put-together. Incorporated is the product of a mature confidence that's been earned over the years. Not only is it a fine addition to Splitsville's past canon, it raises the musical bar even higher and ultimately leaves you wanting more.