Diffident emotion can't quite stick
Humor me for a moment as I take us back to the early ‘90s and revisit alternative darlings Blind Melon. If it weren’t for 1993’s “No Rain” catching fire on MTV, they probably would have sunk without a trace, but that single pushed their eponymous debut album into everyone’s CD collection. I still have it myself and it’s a decent album. Personally, though, it hasn’t turned out to have true staying power. Maybe if lead singer Shannon Hoon hadn’t died of a drug overdose, they might expanded their sound and impact, but his voice -- plaintive and a bit self-absorbed -- is what anchored their songs, and that alone is just not enough to push it into my rotation anymore.
The problem with Tree Machines’ debut EP is that it’s an indie pop version of Blind Melon, without the hyped single to pump it up. It’s easy to draw the comparison because Douglas Wooldridge’s disengaged whine seems to favor Hoon’s distinctive tone, but it’s also due to a similar songwriting style where the songs get wrapped up in themselves and shut out the rest of the world. Like Blind Melon, Tree Machines create some dreamy moments, but their songs don’t really connect, much less stick. Wooldridge imparts some emotion, but it’s delivered in an offhand, diffident way, lacking urgency or immediacy. As a result, these songs don’t make enough of a statement to rise above the already familiar sound.
"At the Wheel" is a perfect example, because it borrows from Blind Melon with a dram of Jane's Addiction thrown in for good measure. Wooldridge turns in one of his stronger emotional performances with lots of overwrought slurring and the arrangement is theatrical with thick reverb and cymbal wash accents. The hazy music and moody lyrics have a lot of potential; if they had accentuated the contrast between calmness and threat, this could have evoked a sense of sleep paralysis or a dream state of being powerless in the face of fate and trauma. The band shoots for this, with the words painting the shadowy part of the picture while the music remains almost idyllic, channeling a blend of The Youngbloods' "Get Together" and "If You Could Read My Mind" by Gordon Lightfoot. But any tension from the dark imagery is undercut as Wooldridge settles with, "It's dark out here / But I feel no fear at all." The swell of noise at the end is the best part, but it comes too late to add any real weight and I’m left wondering what the point was.
The best songs on Tree Machines come late in the playlist. "The Fire" summons more energy and features the most interesting arrangement here with a strong bass line and nice electronic touches in the background. The song also delivers some good dynamic swings, although the vocals blunt the power with dragged out syllables buried in echo. Still, if the whole album had been like this, it would have been something to get excited about. Similarly, "Black and Blue" effectively balances soft and loud sections to make a bigger impact, and it features more interesting instrumentation.
Even if Tree Machines is a bit of a disappointment, I’m not ready to write the band off yet. Those two peak moments suggest that they do have some more promising directions to explore.