Monday, July 27, 2009

Heavy Hometown: Action Figures

Action Figures is a disjointed and inconsistent work, its songs going in opposite directions that don't always mesh as a whole. The debut album from Midwestern-based trio Heavy Hometown, it undoubtedly covers a lot of musical terrain, though that terrain is somewhat sludgy and occasionally leaves shit all over your shoes. It's saddled with many of the negative connotations associated with a first album; chiefly, a lack of self-editing and a sense of fumbling in the dark, groping for a unique musical voice. Yet for all these faults, there are several truly memorable songs lurking amid the clumsiness. While a bit of self-editing would have resulted in a remarkable EP, what we're ultimately left with is a hit-and-miss first statement from a - cliché alert - promising young band.

The most immediate shortcoming to Action Figures is an inconsistency of style that too often suggests a band picking and choosing from a grab bag of previous eras and genres. Such homage is always a dicey proposition - rare is the album that follows this approach and doesn't sound like a slavish and watered-down pastiche of its forbears - and it kills more than a few tracks here. This most frequently occurs on the more abrasive tracks, which tend to sound like by-rote pastiches of shoegaze, drone and lo fi. Regardless of whether it's by coincidence or intention, "Strange Wave" and "Medicine," with their wall of fuzz and slightly buried and distorted vocals, sound like vintage Jesus and Mary Chain, while "My Ghost (Is The Most)" is reminiscent of a garage band who just got their hands on Nuggets for the first time. Of course it's a crap shoot when a critic tries to pin-point a band's influences, but the similarities here are pretty severe, with these songs sounding like a patchwork of various genres and artists.

Yet other tracks are downright stellar. The album roughly splits lead vocal duties between John Wood and Corey Barnes, and the two vocalists' contrasting styles - Wood's voice is fragile and cracked, while Barnes' is far smoother and deeper - make for some nice moments. Woods' weariness on opener "We Ate The Bug" suggests a vulnerability and detachment worthy of Jason Pierce, the song's sparse electric guitar-based arrangement setting a somber tone. "Haircut Chair" is likewise excellent, with Woods' wavering and shaky voice and his assertion that "{all of our dreams are on the ropes}" especially poignant. By contrast Barnes' singing leans toward something more traditional and straightforward. The country-sway of "Black Bikini" showcases his skills nicely, sounding a little bit like a cross between Jeff Tweedy and Curt Kirkwood. Barnes' voice likewise adds emotion and textures to these songs; "your eyes reflect on everything I do" he sings in a near-baritone on "No Bodies," a line that could be interpreted in any number of ways. The band is at its best when it forgoes drone and distortion in favor of these more subdued and introspective moments, where the instruments can breathe and each vocalist can bend and stretch the lyrics.

As debuts go, Action Figures is promising. Its strongest songs suggest a measured understanding of life's joys and disappointments, its imperfections and perfections - "I still love you Sara Ann/ For the good times and the bad" - and mostly offset the color-by-numbers approach that sounds too familiar and generic for its own good. There's an understated sense of both hope and sadness throughout the album, though sometimes the listener has to sort through some clutter to find such moments.

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