Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Drams - "Jubilee Dive" (New West 2006)


I'm not a fan of giving a recording artist a bad time for changing their sound or style, breaking the mold or whatever. Leonard Cohen did it. Bob Dylan did it to (eventual) resounding success. Gibby Haynes made a pretty good go of it with "Gibby Haynes and his Problem", which is a damn fine record that sounds very little like The Butthole Surfers. I think what makes these changes in direction ultimately successful is that, although the sound or approach may be different, you can still hear whatever essential element it is that makes the artist unique. Dylan may have gone rock, but he's still unavoidably Dylan.

Therein lies my problem with The Drams. Switching gears from the aggressive southern rock/alt.country of Slobberbone to the much mellower, poppier, AAA formatted (that's Adult Album Alternative for all you non-radio geeks out there) sound is pretty much impossible for me to do. When you consider that three Slobberbone guys - Jess Barr, Tony Harper, and songwriter/mastermind Brent Best - created this project it just starts stinking of cashing in. Not that I can blame them - Slobberbone put out a string of great records and toured relentlessly for years while remaining unable to break the commercial ceiling. They're owed some success. I just wish they had not gone about it in such an obvious, pandering way.

The Drams remind me a lot of bands I had pretty much forgotten about - bands like Collective Soul and The Wallflowers. I'd pretty much forgotten about them because they were pretty much forgettable. Generic "intelligent" pop that is deliberately produced to be slotted into AAA format radio stations (in Austin KGSR is the big one of these). Slobberbone could have changed their name and toned down their attack, retained their spirit and vitriol, without slipping into this musical wasteland. Instead Slobberbone broke up, 3/4ths of them started The Drams, and hum drum city got a new house band.

There are moments where Best's strengths as a songwriter shine through. "Fireflies" has a clever turn of lyric: "Finally seen that it's over, See the beauty where you are, Appreciate the fireflies, baby, Just in case we never see the stars". Very nice. Unfortunately there's a completely inappropriate and annoying Nicky Hopkins-esque piano wandering around all over the already over produced song. "September's High" shows some of the old spirit, but again suffers from that bright, shiny, lush production. "When You're Tired" stands out the most - it's emotionally engaging, the lyrics are solid, the music is sparse, and the production fits the song for a change. "Des Moines" has the best set of lyrics and is melodically the strongest - the chorus works really well also, placing it just behind "When You're Tired" in my estimation.

Overall, though, this record just sounds lame to me. I've already beat the dead horse of the production, but that's to say nothing of the fact that Best's typically powerful, sometimes snarling, voice primarily sounds whiny here. "Shortsighted", the song seemingly slated for single status, brings this new vocal quality to an almost unlistenable level. I would never have believed that Brent Best could sound like a wimp, but he sure does on most of this record. When you combine this with the fact that this seems to largely be a confessional record, detailing the isolation, rigors, and ennui of living on the road, it really starts to sound like some whiny kid feeling sorry for himself. I feel plenty sorry for myself most of the time without listening to some guy complain about how hard it is being a rock star.

My old band played with Slobberbone a half dozen times or so before they outgrew us and, man, what super nice guys. They also rocked your face off. I'll wait for the next Drams record before I pass a final personal judgement - maybe they just got saddled with a shitty producer - but if this is Brent Best and the boys' new direction then I'm getting off this ride before the disappointment turns to nausea.

Rating: 2 out of 4

6 comments:

JC said...

I couldn't disagree more with your review of this album. Sure, it's different but to me it's a more mature album. I absolutely love it, and love the production on it. And this is from a Slobberbone fan as well.

MiseryCreek said...

Fair enough. Wider opinion seems to be roughly divided on this one, with The Drams certainly coming out ahead. I'll be interested to hear what they do next.

pdxFred said...

I too am a huge fan of Slobberbone and I'll admit the first time I heard the Drams I was taken aback. It was so, well, different. But after listening a few times I became addicted to Jubilee. I think the songwriting sparkles, beautifully negotiating the line between personal detail and universal truth. Musically it's more adventuresome and more sophisticated. Like the other comment says, it's more mature. That's not to say the Drams can't melt your face live, which they do on a regular basis.
And as for "cashing in," come on, man, you've got to be kidding. These guys have gone from having a solid, national following, playing with bands like the Drive-By Truckers, to drawing fewer than 20 people in tiny venues. Nonetheless, they tour like crazy. Whether you care for it or not, this new direction was driven by artistic integrity not commercial greed.

miserycreek said...

I think the "cashing in" part may have been a little harsh. What I know of Brent has always suggested that's it the love, not the money, that's important. Still, I'll stand by the assertion that this album was produced to be super radio friendly and to appeal to folks that would have turned their noses up at Slobberbone. I said it in the review - I think these guys deserve every bit of success that comes their way. I just wish that whatever powers that be, whether them or New West Records, wouldn't have made such an obvious play for it.

It makes me glad that their on tour with the DBT, and that they still rock your face off. I haven't written them off, I just want some of that old passion back - something I feel was noticably absent from "Jubilee Dive".

Thanks for letting me know what you think.

Naomi said...

I had a similar impression the first couple times I heard the album. I left it alone for a while and didn't listen to it again until AFTER I saw the Drams perform live. At that point, I had a completely different impression.

I think that "pop" word showed up in a few reviews and colored a lot of people's opinions, including mine. When you really analyze Jubilee Dive, however, there is only one song that is somewhat "pop" . . . and it's mostly just the background singing.

Take another listen to "Unhinged" or "Crudely Drawn." Those rock as hard as any Slobberbone song in the catalog.

"Holy Moses" and "Des Moines" are as beautiful as any Slobberbone ballad and if you are looking for the imagery and drinking allusions that Slobberbone did so well, it doesn't get much better than the mother of all hangovers depicted in "Wonderous Life."

Also, when I saw the boys on their tour last winter, I can tell you that they are still as down to earth and sincere as you could wish for them to be. I just saw a bunch of guys that make great music and have a ton of fun doing that, regardless of the (lousy) pay and rough conditions of the road. They aren't even close to selling out.

Do yourself a favor and listen to it again. LOUD. Skip the pop song. Or, better yet, go see them live.

And take me with you.

miserycreek said...

Thanks for the heads up, Naomi. I haven't seen them live yet. It's something I'll have to do. If my opinion one eighties after that it won't be the first time that's happened. If you happen to be in Austin and we happen to be in touch you're more than welcome to be my guest.
At this point, I'm still standing on my position with regards to the record's production. It's not just The Drams - I can't stand that style of production period.