Criticizing the Baltimore-based alt rock quartet Red Sammy for being too alternative is kind of like criticizing Taylor Swift for conveying too much angst. What’s the point? As 2011’s “A Cheaper Kind of Love Song” proved, these guys are an acquired taste, for better or for worse. Lead singer and principal songwriter Adam Trice has a voice that can sound as neat as Tom Waits and as obnoxious as Everlast. The songs are heavy on resonator guitar. The drumming is lazy. A mandolin pops up whenever it feels like it. And for the most part, there is nothing particularly praiseworthy about the straightforward blend of rock and twang these guys have perfected.
Or, well, at least that’s what “A Cheaper Kind of Love Song” suggested two years ago. As for the recently released “These Poems with Kerosene,” a 13-track journey through shady bars, cheap liquor stores and inevitable depression that features the group collaborating with poet and University of Baltimore professor Steve Matanle …
Well, things are a bit different.
For one, the musical output is stifled. Of the 13 tracks that paint the record, only eight are proper songs. The other four are spoken-word readings from Matanle that feature only his voice while an additional performance is uttered over a sparse musical backdrop heavy on a rock blues guitar riff that sounds like a snake slinking through the backwoods of West Virginia. The result, as one may imagine, is both enlightening and bizarre.
Still, “These Poems with Kerosene” is a coming-out party for the musical group that sits behind all the pretension a project as artsy as this might suggest. The problems that existed in 2011 simply aren’t there anymore, as the boys have clearly spent the past 24 months tightening their sound and growing as players. What listeners are left with is a commendable short set of new songs that plays to the quartet’s strengths and hides any preconceived weaknesses so well that you almost begin to believe this is a completely different band.
“Woodbourne” and “Brokenlight,” for instance, are revelations. Gone is the embarrassingly cheap nature of “Cactus Flower,” and in is a sense of maturity that is both palpable and confident. Both tracks display the value in slowing things down, and in what might prove to be the most revealing element of the album, the move serves Red Sammy well. Trice’s growl is managed and emotional as he sings, “I go and try to be young again” during the former, and rather than feeling hollow, the lyric bleeds through the speakers in a strikingly honest light. Meanwhile, “Brokenlight” takes a tiny acoustic guitar rhythm and turns it into a slow dance that only accentuates as the resonator is placed perfectly between verses. Unexpected as they may be, both songs amount to the sound of a band that has aged gracefully.
Even the upbeat tracks are far superior to their early-record counterparts. “Everything Must Go” is hard to forget, its repetitive chorus ringing loudly and infectiously despite the loose arrangement that serves as its backbone. “Monstertruck” works well enough to pass as an accessible pop rock tune regardless of its clumsy use of metaphors and the line “I fade like denim/ I break like art” during a misplaced bridge. And “Shark Bait” is wicked fun, drawing legitimate comparisons with the aforementioned Waits and his most recent effort, “Bad As Me,” as its quirkiness earns the band some respect as indie-leaning writers.
And speaking of writers, back to that whole Matanle-reciting-poetry-on-nearly-half-the-record thing.
In short, it’s odd, it’s laughable, it’s pretentious, it’s fascinating, and it’s overwrought. Got all that? Good, because there is nothing unreasonable about a single one of those adjectives. The move makes the release suffer, but only because the questions that linger ask if Red Sammy could compose a full album devoid of mistakes or missteps. Instead, this set turns out to be a collection that, from the band’s standpoint, is only about 70 percent completed. And while it becomes increasingly hard to figure out if each spoken verse should leave listeners either impressed or disgusted, Matanle’s material should, in all fairness, be left out of consideration when mulling the musical output at hand.
Because what the musical output is is surprisingly adequate and encouragingly competent. For that, Red Sammy should be commended. Yeah, “These Poems with Kerosene” probably won’t be the best record of the year, and sure, this Baltimore quartet’s blend of grumbly acoustic twang rock is without question an acquired taste, but since when does “acquired taste” always have to mean “bad”? If nothing else, these eight songs prove that a pretty good band lies beneath all the pomp and circumstance surrounding a release such as this, and to see how gigantic a step the band took between 2011 and 2013 is nothing short of inspiring.
It’s a step that is accomplished with the help of perseverance. And it’s a step that suggests it might be a good idea to check in with Red Sammy whenever 2015 rolls around.
** 2 STARS OUT OF 4 **