A good band still struggling to transcend their influences
Philadelphia's The Asteroid No. 4 has been around for some years now, specializing in retro-sounding jangle-pop, a la The Byrds, and for a time, occupying a spot on the Rainbow Quartz label roster alongside like-minded bands such as The Gurus and The Grip Weeds. Those bands have drifted away from Ruby Quartz these days, and The Asteroid No. 4's newest release, Hail to the Clear Figurines, sees them settled in to The Brian Jonestown Massacre's label, Keep Music Evil. The result is a more expansive and less derivative sound. The songs themselves are a mixed bag, but this is a good step for the band, and some of the tunes here are killer.
One killer track shows up right off the bat: "Wicked Wire" kicks off with a throbbing pulse of fuzz bass, jangly guitars, and processed vocals. It's a two-minute nugget of perfection, one that promises great things for the rest of the record, only some of which bear fruit. One of those fruits is the very last song, "Ignition Slated for Eight", which incorporates dreamy vocals and delicate, understated, yet massively fuzzy guitar to paint a picture of... well, I'm not sure what. "And it seems belief had got you down/But the legend takes you round and round". Take my advice, don't worry too much about the words, just ride the dreamy-groovy wave.
In between those two standout cuts are 10 others, ranging from wordless space trips ("Vesta", "In the Interest of Captain Marbles") to pretty down-tempo tunes ("Wild Opal Eyes", "A Sunny Day (One Afternoon)") to satisfying mid-tempo rockers ("The Unknown", "Be Yourself By Yourself"). The band's signature sound is present throughout: layered harmony vocals, with distorted guitars and keyboards used to create a texture that makes the sonic landscape engaging without being abrasive. Occasionally, other sounds intrude: brass on "The Unknown", harp on "Wild Opal Eyes". Generally, though, the band sticks to the basic five-piece rock template.
There are some missteps too. "Got Nowhere to Go" just sounds too damn much like The Byrds already, while title track suffers from a lackadaisical melody delivered without conviction. It doesn't help that the lyrics are a string of head-scratchers: "The legend begun in 2001, a strange new concept/That they were not real". Later we're informed: "Everyone knows the British Redcoats and Hessians believed/Hail to the clear figurines". Lyrics like that require some musical oomph to back them up, which is sadly lacking here.
Overall, there is more to like than dislike, but the back half of the record suffers from a certain repetitiveness. One pitfall of dreaminess and spaciness is that it can easily meander into formlessness, which some of these songs do. One of the more energetic outings later in the record, "Carnival", clocks in at just a minute-and-a-half, which is something of a lost opportunity. The band is at its best when it finds a muscular hook, whether melodic or instrumental, and constructs a song around it.