(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Recording review - Bad Luck, Cold Bones (2014)

In praise of angst and attitude, thrash and crunch 

Long before I had heard of the label pop punk, I had my own name for it: snotty boys with guitars. The SBWG label might encompass more than just pop punk, but thrashing guitars, tight harmonies, and a lyrical mix of angst and sarcastic attitude occupy the sweet spot. While it's nowhere near as intricate as my other favorite styles - psychedelia, post-rock, and modal jazz - there's something compelling about the primal energy that bands like Bad Luck tap into. For me, it's intimately tied to the feeling of being 14, an age where the stakes are unimaginably high and a roiling mess of thoughts and emotions always lurk below the surface. One moment can embrace the camaraderie of close formation harmonies, but the next soars off alone in a furious scream. It's a reminder of when I was partly formed, when anything was possible but I didn't have enough perspective to know what I even wanted.

The best examples, like Green Day's American Idiot, Team Spirit, or Colorado's Convalescents, can somehow blend a search for meaning and an emotional truth into a rallying cry. At their worst, SBWGs can be self-indulgent and immature. Even then, though, the risk seems worthwhile, because there's a pretty good chance at catharsis if nothing else. On Cold Bones, Bad Luck mostly beats the odds and delivers a satisfying collection of songs.

It didn't seem like a slam dunk at first, though. The loaded pathos in the opening lines of "Willoughby" aren't promising, "Oh, nobody wants me back home/ Nobody loves me at all," but Bad Luck doesn't take long to rush headlong into defiance. The tempo kicks up and the guys run through a hoarse autobiography of neglect and self-reliance. As the vocals trade back and forth, they strain a bit on some awkward phrasing, but that initial bit of self-pity transforms into a badge of honor. Ultimately, the technical execution is trumped by the power of their obstinate fatalism.

The next run of songs harness grinding guitars and solid uptempo drumming to set a relentless pace. Highlights along the way include the inevitable Green Day tribute ("King of the Ring '98") and a satisfying mix of ringing feedback and punk rage on "I Wish the World Would End (Every Jan. 10th)".

The band surprised me, though, with a strong change-up on "Lantern Park", which is a bittersweet breakup ballad. Bad Luck wisely abandons the distortion for a simple acoustic guitar and delivers the song with a tenderness that accentuates the pain and loss. The first verse is incredibly well written:
And it's overcast in the back of this van Mental photographs are flooding my head So I strike a match and set fire to my brain Just to burn away every image of you And that's only cause I know it's what you want me to do But still I'm stuck I dwell in your ashy remains 
Aside from the great imagery - who hasn't found themselves stuck in the ashy remains of a lost love? - the vocal delivery is perfect,from the rough edge of sexual frustration in the second verse to the little shrug and half laugh as he acknowledges his ex moving on while he's still trapped. Rather than get too caught up in the morose mood, the band eases back into crunchy catharsis on the next song, "Graphic Novel(s)", which balances soft and loud sections.

Throughout Cold Bones, brothers Dominick and Joseph Fox trade vocals in a one-two punch. The whipsaw shifts build a nervous energy that permeates even slow-burn tracks like “Ex-Friends”, where their paired voice of conscience becomes a straight-edge rant at a user (ex-)friend. The theme may be a bit mature for my inner 14 year old, but it resonates with the static that filled my head at that age.

Maybe that’s what I’m still looking for from all of these SBWGs: raw passion, a calm eye in the middle of a distortion storm, and a belief in an order that’s both reassuring and something to fight against. Cold Bones does a fine job delivering on those needs.

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