The Society of Rockets’ debut album, Sunset Homes, was a refreshing indie-rock exploration of a number of American pop genres, held together by a distinct honky-tonky flavor and ranging from the ramshackle hoedown “Too Many Thorns in Your Bed of Roses” to the Pavement-invoking brilliance of “(Untitled)”. It was also no preparation for the San Francisco band’s explosive follow-up, Where the Grass Grows Black. It’s all there in the first 30 seconds of “Tangerines & Cigarettes”, where a gooey trumpet and fanfare instantly blasts the record off into violently loud power-pop territory that would shame the New Pornographers. It’s a moment that is as thrilling as it is unsettling, almost suggesting that the Society of Rockets has traded its modest charms for a descent into the desolate streets of Elephant 6-ville?
Thankfully, the Society’s sonic makeover has done little to obscure the band’s core sound. Yes, there are more loud guitar solos, ear-bleeding horn sections, and straight-up rock and roll excesses on Where the Grass Grows Black, but, stripped away from the impressive wall of sound (which the liner notes claim was somehow created using only a 24-track), the band has kept the same songwriting style that did it well on its debut. These are songs from the dusty outskirts of town, when the unreality of the evening’s events is dissipated by the painful reality of the rising sun.
Too often the term “alt-country” is used for music that is hardly an alternative version of country, but is rather a resurrection of an older version of country music, or even a rehash of what was once simply called “country rock” way back in the ’70s. The Society of Rockets, at least on this new album, creates what truly could be considered alternative country, finding the essence of the genre and translating it across a variety of other pop forms. It doesn’t matter whether one of its songs is a Nashville-via-Beale Street twang fest (“Ballroom Kicks”), or a rampaging garage rock stomper (“Dr. X”, “I’m Gonna Smile”), they all seem to be sprung from the same well.
At its best, Where the Grass Glows Black makes all such distinctions of genre and style meaningless, creating a music that is pure in and of itself. “Out in the Evening”, the Society of Rockets’ best song to date, is one of those songs that, upon one’s first hearing it, seems to have been around forever, hidden somewhere in the American subconscious and waiting for Society front-man Joshua Babcock to dig it out. In it, the singer, in a transcendent state of intoxication, “lying on your doorstep”, desperately tries to “tell the sinners from the saints”, reaching towards some odd type of almost-epiphany that is dressed in the plainest language possible. The Sunset Homes throwback “Suicide Summer” is almost as good, perfecting the band’s old, occasionally soporific sound by incorporating dynamic changes that allow the song to build rather than merely hold steady. “Suicide Summer” starts off slow and uneasy, before quietly simmering, and then boiling over into a chorus of joyful nihilism: “You know it don’t matter”.
The Society of Rockets still has room to grow. Where the Grass Grows Black ends with “Old Glory”, an epic war story that is a little bit beyond the band’s grasp. To the Society’s credit, “Old Glory”‘s 11 minutes never drag, as the band amploys all the sonic tricks it has learned in creating this almost embarrassingly lush album. Still, despite a few powerful passages, this dead serious anthem feels like a half-finished jumble attempting to be the band’s final word. The fact that “Old Glory” fails to wrap up Where the Grass Grows Black is as heartening as it is disappointing. The Society of Rockets still have more they need to accomplish, and whether or not they need a Brian Wilson funbox of instruments and sounds to accomplish this, or just a few acoustic guitars and a microphone, I look forward to hearing whatever the band’s next stage will be.