“Losing your edge” is certainly a common concern for bands with a growing number of releases. There is a noticeable trajectory among many bands with raucous early releases to tone down their sound more and more as their career lengthens. This could be for a number of reasons, whether it boils down to a softening of sensibilities over time or just growing bored with whatever genre the band has become known for.
The other side to this coin, however, is that a relaxation in tone gives way to a much more mature style of writing. Its been said that (cliché incoming) the craft of songwriting ages like a fine wine, and this is a potent real-world display of that concept. Its the idea that practice makes perfect, that the more a band writes songs, the less they have to rely on raw energy to be appealing to a large audience. Too often, an abundance of energy is presented as an excuse for a lack of growth in songwriting. Similarly, a more toned down offering can be misconstrued as a lack of quality, while closer examination reveals it to be a band refining it’s own tastes and styles.
A good example of this is Songs From The Hydrogen Jukebox Vol. 1+2, the new album from Philly Ska band The Snails. Over a number of EPs and two albums, The Snails have shown their versatility, playing a mix of Jamaican music, 50’s rock ‘n’ roll, and soul. Past albums, like 2011’s From Kingston To Memphis, featured material that was at times more abrasive and energetic than almost anything else available in the genre. Hydrogen Jukebox is the band’s most relaxed output to date, though that doesn’t imply a decline in quality.
If the volume numbers at the end of the title were not indication enough, this album functions more as two distinct EPs than one cohesive album. In fact, this is the first in a set of two planned “double-EPs” that cover two genres each. The two halves of this album cover blue beat/ska and rocksteady, respectively. The second album, Songs From The Hydrogen Jukebox Vol. 3 + 4, will cover reggae and soul and is slated for a 2015 release. The title is a reference to the Allen Ginsberg poem “Howl”, which signifies “a psychological state in which people are at the limit of their sensory input… [a] reminder of apocalypse“. Though this darker theme is present in a few songs (notably the title track), the album never feels weighed down by the title’s heavy implications.
The first four songs make up the “Blue Beat” Volume, which emulates the 60s-era ska releases of the Jamaican Blue Beat Records. In many ways, this section of the album is a spiritual successor to the Todd Fausnacht and The Well Whiskey Wind Whistlers self-titled album that members of The Snails put out late last year. While the use of fiddle did not carry over, the use of upright bass and the boogie-inspired grooves make the songs feel like they belong being played on a front porch. An exclusion to this lackadaisical nature is side standout track “Paulo Friere Ska”, a forward-moving instrumental track that features Dave Hillyard on sax, King Django on trombone, and an interesting section of Burru drumming. Closing out side A is the title track, which is a light, danceable number with surprisingly heavy lyrics addressing the cognitive dissonance involved in choosing work over play.
After the title track, the album switches gears to more of a rocksteady sound for the rest of the album’s runtime. The second half starts with a re-recorded version of “Many Roads”, which was originally featured on the split EP The Snails Meet The Heavy Beat at The Underground Cellar. The band has clearly had time to mull over this song, as this new version sounds tighter and more dynamic than the previous recording. Bassist Ben Parry’s switch from upright to electric bass for this half of the album is hard to miss on this track, as the bass is heavy in the mix to the point of it almost being overblown (seriously, try this puppy out on a car stereo with the bass EQ raised even a little bit). Although that sounds like a bad thing, the loud bass stands as another signifier that the tone of the album has shifted, like some sort of low-end herald angel. Penultimate track “Only a Fool” reminded me of the standout Snails track “Where I’m Bound“, where an impressive groove fills the song, punctuated by attention-catching hits. In general, I feel that this was the stronger half of the album, as the songs blended together much smoother than those in the first half, and the grooves are better befitted to The Snail’s style.
As with any Snails release, a big part of my enjoyment of this record is hearing the colorful background vocal harmonies throughout. Every member of the band contributes vocals to this album, and the soft oohs and ahhs create a nice contrast to singer Todd Fausnacht’s gristly howl in the foregrounds of these tunes. Looking past the grooves, almost every track on this album has melodies that take a few listens before they reveal how catchy they are. The exception to this is the final track “Strong Foundation”, which has an immediate vocal hook that repeats throughout, eventually becoming one of the last things that you hear on this record.
It is rare for one album to both refine a signature sound and also experiment with genres while still sounding as good as this album does. These eight songs show that The Snails have not lost their edge, but have instead re-purposed it into something better.
Songs From The Hydrogen Jukebox Vol. 1+2 is available on CD via Asbestos Records (courtesy of Stubborn Records) with a vinyl release coming soon. Additionally, you can also get the album as a digital download via their bandcamp. Meanwhile, the Big Tunes pre-sale campaign created after the band’s van was stolen a week before their tour supporting this album is still active, so check it out to get special deals and limited edition memorabilia!
BIG TUNES: Paulo Friere Ska, Only A Fool, Strong Foundation
Stream the full album below:
BONUS! One of the rewards from the Big Tunes campaign is a 7″ vinyl pressing of The Snail’s cover of The Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes”, which will only be available during the campaign. A few days ago, the band released a video for the song, which is a slow soulful rendition worthy of the original.