Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Alternate Routes: A Sucker's Dream enough said.

After spending a weekend listening to A Sucker's Dream, I needed a few stiff drinks to wash the mainstream radio-friendly taste out of my mouth. The Alternate Routes' latest effort is unabashedly commercial, with a clean production that emphasizes fatass guitar riffs, crisp and up-front vocals, drums punchy enough to make Max Weinberg jealous and anthemic rhythms that beg to be played in front of a packed music club as a relief pitcher takes the mound. The band's style is balls-ahead rock n' roll with a faint hint of country and pop - and that's all in big capital letters - with little room for subtlety, nuance or experimentation. The album doesn't try to map out a new musical vision or strange new language; it's clear the band is more interested in working within the confines of existing styles than in trying to map out new ones.

For the most part this approach works; if you're in the mood for pure rock music with more than a hint of machismo and a twist of humor, you could do a lot worse than A Sucker's Dream. "To the Line" features both shredding guitars and shouted manly-man group vocals, while the title track punctuates this vocal approach with the album's biggest guitar riffs. These bursts of bombast are at least somewhat tempered with several sparse ballads. "Desdemona" includes Patty Griffin and is the album's most disarming and engaging track; built around an acoustic guitar melody and running nearly six minutes, this hushed and reserved song manages to stand out in the sea of decibels that characterizes most of the album. "Already November" takes a similar approach and is held together by a subdued guitar line, with lead singer Tim Warren's vocals occasionally reminiscent of Jeff Tweedy, John Hiatt, Jim James or, less charitably, Edwin McCain at his soulful worst.

Still there's something just a bit too AOR about A Sucker's Dream. While the album's press materials suggest that the band is aware of (and perhaps embraces) these tendencies, on several songs it gets the better of them. "Ain't No Secret" and "All that I See" are both heart-on-sleeve love songs, with overwrought musical and vocal arrangements primed for a television melodrama and with enough syrup to upset even the most cynical stomach. The sentiments expressed are just too close to what you've heard from countless buskers on the promenade or from that subculture of Devendra Banhart-lookalike musicians who frequent the quads across American universities. It's on these moments when the sheen is uber-polished and the lyrics are hopelessly romantic where the album loses the listener's interest.

A Sucker's Dream's experimental moments are rare; aside from the hazy and echoed vocal treatment on "The Future's Nothing New," it offers straightforward rock tunes, with the occasional ballad thrown in. While the songs sound organic and it's somewhat refreshing to see a band simply trying to rock with a mixture of humor, sympathy, hope and determination instead of attempting a grand musical statement and bombing miserably - hell, it's worked for The Hold Steady - the album is ultimately uneven and underwhelming. Too often it simply sounds like overly familiar music just looking for a home right of the dial.

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