There are few kinds of music reviews I detest more than the review that offers advice to the musician. It comes from the demonstrably false premise that the critic is on the musician’s side, and that even though the reviewer is shitting on the artist’s lifework for a meager payday, we’re really all on the same team here. Capital B Baloney.
The critic and artist are in direct opposition, and at the end of the day, when the dust is curdled with blood and the ground is strewn with tridents and nets, only one will, in mixed-metaphor Highlander style, stumble out of the arena. Don’t pretend you’re the band’s pal, critic. All bands have one or two token writer friends and the rest, they hate like they hate themselves. It’s not a great system, but don’t make it worse by saying “This album is garbage, but I look forward to their next release where they will undoubtedly take my advice to: a) ditch their drummer b) add a drummer or c) be a different gender and more like Band Who Shall Remain Nameless, Whose Publicist I Owe Money To.”
So I want to talk about the Estranged, whose third, self-titled album is out now via Portland’s Dirtnap Records, as the band they are, not the band I wish they were. Or, rather, I don’t want to talk about them as the band that I suspect they want to be. It all gets a bit muddled.
Do they want to be Echo and the Bunnymen? Probably not. They avoid the needless psychedelic wash by keeping the drums straightforward and snare-centric. So do they want to be the Wipers? I hope not. Fine as that band was, by this point bands from Portland should be just name-checking Wipers-influenced bands like the Observers and leave the Greg Sage worship to their grunge forebears. Do they want to be the Chameleons? The danger of being the Chameleons is the Interpol Curse, wherein everyone thinks you sound like Joy Division except all the beard-stroking pedants who need to interject in every conversation “Actually… they sound like the Chameleons.” And Jesus on a crutch, does anyone want to go through that rigamarole again? I’d pay you 200 couches tomorrow for not having to hear that today. So let’s say they want to be the Comsat Angels mixed with, I dunno, all the other bands on Dirtnap, i.e., the Marked Men and variations thereof. (Essay Idea: the Marked Men as, in the long term, the third most influential male, white, rock group after the Beatles and Pearl Jam. Must remember to pitch later…)
So anyway, this is an admirable goal, as the end result is that they sound like the Estranged. Did I mention that the Estranged is a good band? I should have. Your band could do a lot worse than to sound like them. But then someone’s just going to tell you that you sound like the Chameleons. Or the Sound. Or the Wipers.
Bands, this is why it is very important to tell critics what you sound like in your one-sheet. If you don’t tell the writer what you sound like, he or she will not know. And he or she will be driven insane by the sheer embarrassment of options. Then they will say you sound like Joy Division. Then online commenters will say you sound like Joy Division. Then you, sitting in your van, reading the newest issue of Flipside, will say “But I haven’t listened to Joy Division since I was 15! I like Dusty Springfield and From Ashes Rise!” But by then, band, it will be too late.
I should talk more about the Estranged and less about my myriad grievances with God and internet and criticism. At this point, I’m just being rude. Sorry, the Estranged. Did I mention that I like the Estranged? OK, good, because I do. The singer and guitarist Mark Herman sounds sufficiently pained and he has a cool, plaintive voice that gets under my skin nicely. I wish the lyrics were a bit more specific, but only because I like specificity and I like his voice (and I love his delivery when he, in songs like “Mark of Sin,” almost loses it), so I’d like more clues as to what, specifically, his fucking problem is. But “The trigger’s on the truth/Won’t matter what you say or do/Shooting holes in lover’s souls tonight” (from “Over and Over”) is solid B+ over-the-top romantic recrimination. And Herman, throughout much of the record, talks about the stars and the sky without resorting to cliché, which is obviously very fucking difficult. I also, as I alluded to earlier, like that the drums are straightforward and pronounced. The basslines are melodic unto themselves but never distract from the drive of the songs. For all the occasional nods to ’80s Liverpoolian grandeur, the interplay between drummer Keith Testerman, bassist Derek Willman, and Herman keep things tense and avoids veering off into 120 Minutes territory.
This album is, frankly, a grower. I’m roughly on listen 30 now, and am definitely hearing things I missed or took for granted the first 10 listens. There’s more going on than I initially gave them credit for. But this is still a punk band. By their own definition a “dark punk” band. I don’t know what that means, but it is a handy way to differentiate them on paper from the surf sunshine kegger-ocity of so many Burger Records “punk” bands. And it does them more justice than just calling them post-punk and pouring the comparisons on ’til they drown in hyperbole they never asked to have applied. The Estranged, regardless of comparisons, will never soar like Echo and the Bunnymen, nor would I want them to. It is more than sufficient, preferable even, to be the sad-eyed boys at the squat, the razors that never die but are first at the funeral, old romantics with dogs. They are the captains of their own pain, etc. Or to bring it to the utopian intersection of boots, braces and beautiful Robert Smith-ian teased hair that I, you, and the Estranged all aspire to: Don’t goths have struggles? Don’t goths have streets?