At first glance, it’s hard not to compare Washington’s The Grey Area with The Black Keys. Both outfits are just a couple of guys writing straightforward rock ‘n’ roll tunes that are heavy on electric guitar and powerful drums. Both duos have a tendency to veer into Led Zeppelin-esque blues while maintaining a strong pop sensibility. And maybe most importantly, both acts seem to know that what they do, they do well, mostly always leaning on their strong suits and smartly ignoring approaches and trends they know will never do them any good (with the exception of one particular instance, which we’ll get to later).
So, in reality, The Grey Area should be on the precipice of mainstream success, right? The most profitable meal-ticket popular music has offered over the last decade is the practice of a two-person band. From The White Stripes to MGMT to She & Him, and even all the way back to Local H (remember them?!), forming a duo has proven to be a calling card for faux-indie acts everywhere. At this point, it’s become a badge of honor.
Ahh, but if you remember correctly, that top paragraph contains three big words: At. First. Glance. Indeed, “Sugar, From You,” “(What You) Do (To) Me” and “You” — the first half of The Grey Area’s six-song debut EP, “508” — combine for a string of songs that echo a fantastically modern rock style reminiscent of Queens Of The Stone Age-ish pumped-up blues. But from there, the release takes a turn for the worse, opting for cookie-cutter pop rock over their unique brand of soulful sounds showcased so easily in those first three songs.
First, the good. “Sugar, From You” is easily the EP’s most interesting track. Jason Steinhauer’s piercing guitar lick soars over Timothy Jones’s lazy-groove drums in such a poignant manner, it’s impossible to not immediately pay attention to what “508” might offer. It’s eerily reminiscent of most anything from Jack White’s other pet project — The Raconteurs — and Steinhauer’s clean vocals provide an unexpected layer to an otherwise beautifully dirty song, already making a strong case for end-of-year best-of lists, even though it’s only March.
“(What You) Do (To) Me” and “You” immediately keep in step with that blues rock tone “Sugar, From You” sets. The former features the most memorable riff the release offers and as much as it might pain any hipper-than-thou fans to hear it, the start/stop, hard rock verses make for a performance one could easily hear on an iTunes commercial. It’s like listening to Jet before Jet became annoying. Meanwhile, “You” recalls Queens Of The Stone Age offshoot Them Crooked Vultures with its bouncy guitar and swing-like drums.
But then, it happens. With about two-and-a-half minutes left, the bridge turns into a refrain that features, in part, the always-recognizable, impossible-to-forget “Inspector Gadget” theme on guitar. The move itself is fine, albeit a bit cheesy, but from that point on, the boys in The Grey Area never turn the car back around to try to find their way back home to Bluesville. Granted, it’s almost certainly coincidence that the rest of the release takes on a different tone from this point, but when considering the release as a whole, one can’t help but point a finger at that very moment.
Enter “Hurricane” and “Ourselves,” two songs that provide the sound of a band trying to be something they aren’t: pop stars. Gone is the rough-edged electric guitar that gave the duo’s style a sense of levity and in is an array of generic time-signature changes (“Ourselves”) and guitar patterns (“Hurricane”). There’s nothing wrong with making a play for pop prominence, of course, but when standing next to the three rock-solid tracks that open the EP, both songs sound careless and cheap. Couple those let-downs with the unfunny attempt at hip-hop on the hidden track — during which any listener can tell Steinhauer and Jones simply couldn’t help themselves from trying to be ironic in a nonironic way, of course — and all that’s left to do is shake your head and wonder why on Earth these guys would leave what they do best behind.
Then again, this is a debut EP, after all. The Grey Area have plenty of time to iron out the kinks and grow into the band they could someday be. In fact, “508” proves to be noticeably reminiscent of other debut efforts that once oozed with promise, regardless of the requisite wrong decisions and failed experiments that tend to creep their way onto a first release (remember, friends — noooooobody cared about The Black Keys, for instance, more than a decade ago, when the duo initially formed). So, yes. At first glance, this Washington act seems destined for bigger things than the obligatory Strathmore gig. And yes, once you see past that intriguing introduction, the shine seems to wear off just a little.
But as we all know, there’s a lot to be said about first impressions. And if nothing else, “508” should earn The Grey Area a chance for a second look sometime down the road, considering the amount of promise that peaks through at least three of these six songs every now and then.
*** 3 STARS OUT OF 4 ***