Charmingly Awkward is essentially an album of cover songs, as we hear Street to Nowhere play their version of Indie's Greatest Hits.
Perhaps when naming their new album, California's Street to Nowhere should have tried a little harder. Perhaps Uncomfortably Familiar, or Awkward Genre-Crossing. At least half-aptly named, Charmingly Awkward is true to its title, as it bounces from indie-rock to emo, acoustic to alt-rock, changing genres as often as Hollywood starlets change boyfriends, and never really settling into a definite or grounded rhythm. It's a strange collection of classic musical tropes and a plethora of different influences: a smattering of Weezer's buoyancy, a pinch of Death Cab for Cutie's understatement, and peppered with enough Conor Oberst that it hurts to listen to. Street to Nowhere are a cornucopia of other artists' sounds, and the result is a curiously tentative album which unfortunately feels more than a little uncomfortable in its own skin.
A self-confessed pastiche of different sounds, Charmingly Awkward stops and starts, either bursting with life, or ponderously clawing its way through nondescript downers. The album comes out flying, opening track “Screamin'” bursting with optimistically wild abandon. This album is going to be awesome, right? Not quite. As soon as the last chords ring out, things slow to an almost dead halt. Clumsily placed dissonant string arrangements screech gratingly on “Boxcars, Boxcars, Boxcars”, and the slow plodding place hovers like a grey sky, showing no signs of letting up. Reaching rock bottom at “Dead Cliche”, the album has lost almost all of the fantastic momentum it gained in the first track. Suddenly, though, “Tipsy” jumps out from nowhere at the album's halfway point, re-energizing and renewing, pulling out the defibrillator and jump-starting the album's flat-lining vitals. However, two good tracks do not an album make, and Charmingly Awkward never seems to settle into any discernible or comfortable rhythm. Unpredictability can be a fantastic device, but in this case it just seems too awkward -- pardon the pun.
It's nice to get influence from artists that you respect, but it occasionally feels as though Street to Nowhere have studied their genre textbooks a little too hard. Listening to certain tracks, particularly the acoustic whining of “Georgia, Can You Hear Me?”, it's unsure whether this is an original composition, or if singer Dave Smallen was simply raiding the bins over at Saddle Creek Records and salvaged the guitar and vocal sheet music from Bright Eyes' personal trash can. And the comparisons don't stop there, as the album leaps clumsily across genre boundaries, dropping one style for another with an abruptness that is glaringly disharmonious. Eyeliner-laden emo rock power chords woefully stomp their way over “Miss Rolling Eyes”, as Smallen wails to “Replace me with stab wound sighs / The wounds I failed to cauterize”. Fourteen year olds everywhere are going to be disappointed when they discover that this track isn't the newest My Chemical Romance single. Then, as suddenly as it begins, the shoe-gazing stops and the upbeat rock returns in “Waste My Life for You”, bursting with catchy rhythm and affectedly blithesome vocal tones, and Street to Nowhere again clumsily storm their way from style to style in an unwieldy fashion.
Charmingly Awkward isn't a complete waste of time, if you want to listen to covers of indie artists' greatest hits, but it's just so strange to listen to. As soon as you pinpoint one particular genre or influence for a specific track, Street to Nowhere manage to turn all assumptions on their heads, pulling out something so thematically, sonically, and lyrically different from the preceding track that it's downright confusing. It would be far too simple to hail this as another whining outfit riding the coattails of Conor Oberst, or cashing in on Weezer's quirky rock sound, because Street to Nowhere can clearly hold their own ground. Their sound is not definitive, but it is solid, and even has one or two moments that are shamefully catchy.
However, it's impossible to escape the feeling that the Street to Nowhere are just pushing everything they've got to the forefront, showcasing their talents across all genres, advertising a versatility that simply isn't there. A great album should leave you feeling fulfilled and sated, maybe even humming a chorus here or there. Charmingly Awkward plays like a multi-artist mixed tape, and leaves only a lingering bamboozlement, as you try to figure out exactly who it was that you just listened to.