Boston's art punks conjure up the ghost of that city's '80s college rock heyday
Two years ago I wrassled, metaphorically speaking, with the Beatings' The Heart, the Product, the Machine and the Asshole EP. I didn't "get" that disc, and to this day I still feel like I'm missing the joke on tunes like "American Standard" and "Transvestite Bar". That said, the Beatings' first disc, 2002's Italiano, had won rave reviews, conjuring up the great Boston-area college rock ghosts of the '80s -- the Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., Mission of Burma, with some Husker Du thrown in for good measure. Always one to give a band a second chance -- and especially a band full of fellow Bostonians -- I received their follow-up LP, Holding on to Hand Grenades, hoping to hear the band that inspired Italiano's praise and not the one that dumped The Heart... on me.
I will say this much, and then enough about me: I have called a truce with the Beatings, though they probably never knew they were involved in a skirmish. Hand Grenades invokes all those aforementioned '80s touchstones while adding enough post-millenial art rock flourishes to sound vital in today's rock scene. The Beatings have stumbled on a musical recipe that they use to good effect on Hand Grenades: bleak, melancholy lyrics that sound like Zen Arcade-era Husker Du (Can't you imagine Bob Mould screaming the chorus of the ironically-titled "Feel Good Endings": "When I write / You never write me back / And when I call / You say 'Call off the attack'") with that band's same guitar squall attack, with J Mascis-style solos and Pixies-esque boy-girl vocals.
Also, the band -- bassist/vocalist Eric Dalbec, drummer Eric Grabowski, guitarist/vocalist Eldridge Rodriguez and guitarist/vocalist Tony Skalicky -- sounds fuller than they ever have, enlisting an outside producer for the first time ever: Paul Q. Kolderie, who has worked with everyone from Dino Jr. to the Lemonheads to the Mighty Mighty Bosstones (and plenty of non-Boston acts as well). Kolderie makes his presence felt immediately, putting Skalicky's vocals front and center on the massive-sized opener "A Responsible Person" and building a giant wall of guitars on the yowling "This City Is Killing Me".
There's a few other nice tweaks Kolderie and the band has added to their repertoire for Hand Grenades: dig the spooky violins on "Stockholm Syndrome Relapse" and the turn-on-a-dime tempo shifts of "Upstate Flashbacks", "Remedial Math Rock" and "Pennsyltuckey". Given the tandem barrage of aggressive guitars and down-at-the-heels lyrics, it's a breath of fresh air when the band changes gears mid-tune. It's still bleak-sounding, just a different kind of bleak-sounding.
That said, at 61 minutes, Holding on to Hand Grenades is too long. Seven of the album's 16 songs run north of five minutes; if the songs were more concise, they would have less need for the mid-song tempo shifts. Trim 20 minutes from the album and the Beatings would be more powerful. They've got it in them to do so, too, as Hand Grenades' most complete thought may be the 90-second "CoIntelPro" -- quick, punky, and not too mopey. If the band strikes a balance between 1'30" and 5'00", morale will improve and the Beatings will continue.