Sweat It Out
Mean Buzz Records / Adrenaline Music, 2008
REVIEW BY: Julia Skochko
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/13/2009
There's a saying in the construction industry…“fast, cheap and high-quality -- you can have two, but not three.” You can have a hovel tomorrow, you can have a mansion in 2037, you can sell your kidney for Corian countertops. It all depends on whether you want your budget, your deadline or your finished product to take the hit.
There's no similar saying in the music biz, but there ought to be. I propose “Be Better, Stranger, Louder Or Harder.” It ain't as catchy as the construction crew's ditty, but hear me out. If you want your efforts to pique listeners’ interest, you have four options. You can be super-talented, super-weird, super-intense or super-dedicated. If you've got all four, congratulations... you're a genius, and quite possibly deceased (I hope the afterlife’s fabulous, Mr. Mercury). With three, you've got something special. Two's fine, so long as you've got quantities to back up the qualities (there are entire genres built around the super-weird/super-intense paradigm). One -- while pushing it -- is acceptable for niche acts.
Possessing none of these qualities is a venial sin. It just means you're not cut out to be a musician. At best, you'll produce something so bad it's hilarious; at worst, you'll have some “when your old man was in a rock band” stories for the kiddies.
It's middling amounts of ‘em that gets bands in real trouble. Take a tiny bit of talent or a dab of dedication, add someone who mistakes it for the real deal and you've got yourself a recipe for disaster. The bigger the potential, the bigger the disappointment.
Sweat It Out, The Pink Spiders' sophomore release, is a whopping disappointment. Not because of what it is, but because of what it could've been. It's peppy, catchy power-pop. The musicians are talented. The production (courtesy of the legendary Brendan O'Brien) is flawless. And yet somehow, promising ingredients bake up into something uninspired and inconsequential. It's kind of like using organic flour, free-range eggs and butter churned on the grave of Escoffier himself and winding up with Chips Ahoy. “Aw, crap!” is almost eclipsed by “But... but... how can this BE?” Listen up, chickadees, and I shall tell you.
The Spiders’ signature is the hook. It's their forte, piece de resistance, their super-duper ninja kung fu death blow. The first twenty seconds of each track are pure pop adrenaline. “Stranglehold,” the best cut by far, launches straight into a slinky, propulsive bass/piano riff. It's half sneer, half black pleather and pops into my head unbidden at least once per day. Unfortunately, while other tracks begin with that kind of giddy energy, none of them manage to sustain it. A hook doesn't make a song any more than it makes a pirate -- you've gotta have some flesh behind it.
There's the rub, kiddos: you can be pretty good. You can have a decent gimmick. You can try when you're in the mood and nothing good's on HBO. But unless you push yourself and your music further than the next guy, your output -- while commercially viable -- will be pretty forgettable. Each of Sweat It Out's tracks starts with a great idea ("Falling With Every Step" is ‘80s hair metal temporarily possessed by Queen), then disintegrates into something generic, messy or just plain uninspired. And damn it, it manages to break your heart a lil’ every time.
“Here Comes Trouble” tries to merge Cheap Trick’s heart with the Stray Cats’ guts. Power-rockabilly is an idea with potential, but in this case, it yields nothing more than slight, faintly twangy pop. “Seventeen Candles” (an updated, role-reversed “Only the Good Die Young”) struggles to bridge the great pop-piano chasm. On one side, there's Ben Folds’ storytelling and humor. On the other, there's Maroon 5’s peppy, credit card commercial-ready soft rock. “Seventeen Candles” wobbles uneasily between the two. “Busy Signals” could have single-handedly bred a new genre -- teenybopper funk! But once again, it fizzles out. Its insanely catchy electro-distorted bass line deserves better than a TRL-ready chorus.
Sweat It Out is also hindered by an Attitude Problem. It'd be understandable if the Spiders were a bit cocky. If I could write riffs half as catchy, I'd spend my days doing the backstroke in a pool of money and well-oiled groupies. Their tough-guy posturing, though, is a little embarrassing (sort of like a dead groundhog turning up in your money-pool). The group’s vocals are more Backstreet Boy than bad boy. They're sweet, smooth and falsetto-ready. The lyrics, though, are of a much grimier ilk. “Settling For You” is an updated ‘50s pop-shop tune...which is what makes its PCP references so silly. Like uppers and downers, four-part harmonies don't mix well with druggy braggadocio. “Gimme Chemicals” is a Def Leppard-ized summer novelty single. “Don't Wait For Me” is neo-Bon Jovi -- the acoustic stylin's of an axe-wielding cowboy. When Matt Friction croons, “... it's just me and Jack Daniels tonight,” the first thing that pops into your head is, “Are you kids even of legal drinking age?!” And “Sleeping on the Floor”’s strong points (shred-tastic guitars coupled with hand-claps and defiant brattiness) are undercut by the inane debauchery of the lyrics (“we were swimming in tequila, now we're sleeping on the floor!”).
There are people dying to be musicians. They want it. They want it bad. There are kids who want it bad enough to pass up XBoxes for amps. Teenagers who want it bad enough to turn down scholarships. Middle-aged guys who want it bad enough to risk the neighbors’ derision and the wife’s good graces.
When a major-label album is lukewarm -- when it's neither better, stranger, louder nor harder -- it's an insult to every dude who ever took out a home equity loan to finance a mixing board. If you're not passionate about music, step aside for someone who is. And if you are, put your back in to it. Play every song until it squeals for mercy. When you crank out something as glittery and fantastic as “Stranglehold,” don't stop trying. Don't make it your triumph -- make it your baseline. With potential like the Spiders’, you're liable to make something great.
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