October 24, 2009

Lovedrug: Pretending they’re still alive

It’s hard to believe it’s been five years since Pretend You’re Alive launched Canton, Ohio’s Lovedrug to national prominence. More astonishing is that seven years after they first took the stage, they’re pretending they’re still alive.

That’s right. Michael Shepard & Co. are working on new material. They’ve incorporated it into various shows during the past four months:

Much to my chagrin, it sounds no less uncompelling than their last release, The Sucker Punch Show – a title that would be innocuous were it not so ironic. The mordancy? The ardent devotee gets suckered into buying a record that fails to show any significant punch.

A completely nebulous mishmash, the band’s final march with The Militia Group makes its previously mediocre effort – 2007’s Everything Starts Where It Ends – look like a Grammy contender. Continuing the trend of that album’s conclusion, this compilation slogs through tepid lethargy, largely void of the inspiration and raw aggression Lovedrug once embodied.

Shepard is a uniquely gifted composer when codified; however, as he despairs on “Blood Like” (the disc’s lone sufferable song), he has really caught his leg in a trap this time. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have anyone to rescue him – not even esteemed recording engineer Michael Beinhorn, whose producer role is reduced to glorified knob-turner. Newcomers Jeremy Gifford, Thomas Bragg and James Childress are either incapable of providing marginal inventive supplements or were rendered impotent at Shepard’s behest.

The latter is more likely (and thus somewhat forgivable), yet ultimately inconsequential, since the musical peregrinations are unappealingly incongruent. The worst offenders, “Broken Home” and “My World” – horribly misguided forays into a kind of Wallflowers/Counting Crows hybrid folk pop – overtly seek radio-friendly status, a goal for which “Let It All Out” and “Only One” would have been far better suited if only afforded requisite cachet.

The few pieces possessing promise never fulfill it. “Everyone Needs a Halo” needs its head-banging crescendo as dominant rather than denouement. “Borrowed Legs” loses the demo version’s ethereal aesthetic, while the lounge groove that remains is wantonly cut off at the knees. Shepard unleashes puissant fury on “The Dirtiest Queen” before reverting to pedestrian time signatures, diminishing its coruscating chaos. “Fake Angels” could have secured a spot alongside lauded ballads “Down Towards the Healing” and “Salt of the Earth,” but gets derailed by a constrained bass line and mundane rhythms.

The morbid lyrical imagery – consistent enough to belie coincidence – probably foreshadows Lovedrug’s pending demise. It appears Shepard has lost his will to pursue the brass ring with the seventh incarnation (if I’m counting correctly) of a turbulent enterprise long sans direction and staggered by one too many industry slobberknockers. This CD, sadly, is the knockout blow.

October 10, 2009

The Most Serene Republic … of Motown?

Quick: What do Sergei Rachmaninoff and Diana Ross have in common? The Most Serene Republic think the two are musical equals worthy of the same pedestal, so much so that these critically-acclaimed artists from Toronto spend the entirety of their latest album, … And the Ever Expanding Universe, trying to convince the listener of this absurd corollary. They don’t come close to successfully defending the assertion; instead, they provide yet another example of artistic hubris – or, more accurately, laziness.

Allow me to backtrack for the uninitiated. TMSR (who derive their name from the Most Serene Republic of Venice) first caught my attention last year with Phages, an experimental EP of sorts that preceded what, in my view, was one of the best releases of the decade: 2007’s Population, a veritable indie rock opera which Rachmaninoff himself would’ve been proud to inspire. And according to TMSR’s Ryan Lenssen, he actually did:

“If you go back to people like Rachmaninoff, and Schoenberg, and Shostakovich, and Prokofiev, those guys all knew how to create a mood and intensity, and I don’t think it’s really something that you can get from a lot of modern music. So it’s necessary to go back and search through history for arguably the most talented and most genius musicians of all time.”

How TMSR decided on Ms. Ross as their next line of historical demarcation is puzzling – especially in light of Population‘s brilliance. The impetus may lie with the always ambiguous internal band turmoil.

The National Post reported that TMSR nearly broke up after returning from extensive touring in 2008 (the departure of prolific drummer Tony Nesbitt-Larking – supposedly of his own volition – was ominous), with Lenssen fearing, “if things didn’t change, it felt like we’d end up on fire or else laid out on the side of some ditch.” (That scenario would have been literal irony for vocalist Emma Ditchburn.) They eventually ended up in the studio with producer Dave Newfeld, who prodded them to make a more “soulful” record.

I don’t much mind TMSR or anyone else exploring new avenues. The danger, of course, is the potential compromising of identity. But TMSR have gone a good bit further. They’ve not only compromised it for the sake of “change”; they’ve completely disowned it:

“… there was, however, a conscious effort by the band to make some kind of musical departure—a direction that, on paper any way, seems implausible for the Most Serene Republic.

‘I said I want a record that sounds like the Association,’ Lenssen reveals. ‘I want it to sound like Motown, like Diana Ross and the Supremes, because indie-rock is done; that sound was pretty much 2002-2005.'”

This kind of indolence under the guise of experimentation is as irrational as it is repugnant, and would have Rachmaninoff spinning in his grave. It also roundly contradicts what Lenssen previously espoused:

“If you’re in Cologne, and you see that big cathedral in Cologne that took 300 years to build, you couldn’t get them to do that for money. You need God. Or you need something — you need something that’s bigger to get people to spend their entire lives working on this project and die for this enormous, almost grotesque kind of piece of architecture. And that takes a real focus and a real dedication. Not a sacrifice, but a full want and longing to create something that’s much larger than you are. And I think that’s what this band is for us.”

I lament Lenssen’s about-face from this geniune sentiment. TMSR is the personification of indie rock, a timeless genre (like Rachmaninoff’s) with virtually limitless possibilities. Duplicating their previous masterpiece would have required a “focus and dedication” clearly absent from … And the Ever Expanding Universe. As far as I can tell, TMSR’s universe is now an alternate one.

(Clips from interview by MolesClub)

UPDATE: TMSR’s Adrian Jewett admits the band was “nearly not as hard on ourselves and each other as we were before” during the making of … And the Ever Expanding Universe, confirming an apathetic approach. And if that makes some of their fans unhappy, Lenssen’s response is, in essence, a most serene “f**k you.”