From Janis Joplin to Florence Welch, the one common denominator among all great female rock singers is soul. Say what you want about who’s the most edgy, the most passionate, the most beautiful or the most talented. Insist that the best kind of estrogen-inspired tones must always be accompanied by a snotty attitude and a bunch of leather. Scream from the mountaintops that Brittany Howard is the most intriguing ball of feminine fire rock music has seen in years. Make your proclamations. Win your arguments. And turn the volume to 11. No matter what you do or where you end up, you can’t deny this: To achieve success as a female in such a male-dominated realm of popular music, you must bring the power.
You must, of course, bring the soul.
Such is at the impetus of the conundrum surrounding Frederick’s Old Receiver Band’s most recent eight-song set. While blatantly competent (almost to a fault), the quartet’s effort is mired down by apathy, a showcase of shoulder shrugs that leaves neither a good or bad taste echoing through one’s palate, asking the listener to beg for as much as a smidgen of variance. It’s like opening a bottle of water labeled with a flavor only to find that the liquid isn’t even purified. The result, as one may expect, hardly quenches even the tiniest bit of thirst.
Take “Superficial” and “Dirty Little Things,” the two most forgettable tracks offered here. Both pick up the pace, utilizing a half-time tempo in ways reminiscent of late-1980s college radio rock. Though despite their collective heart residing firmly in the correct place, both songs stick to a formula that’s so watered down, it becomes virtually impossible to give either a second thought. Worse is the latter’s attempt at sex appeal, an unfortunate turn toward The Land Of Bad after staying straight on The Road Of OK for miles. Well-placed hand-claps notwithstanding, lead singer Sara McKay aims high with her wink-filled choruses, yet her performance simply feels more predictable than provocative, a fatal flaw for such a suggestive endeavor.
Better is “Believer” and “Was It You.” The improvement is driven by Jon-Mikel Bailey’s drums, the one element of the set that consistently impresses. His playing is fluent, funky and fun, a reminder of how much a solid drummer can help save a band from itself. Enhancing the songs are Ian Morrison’s tasteful bits of understated guitar, subliminally shining on “Believer” whenever called upon, sparse and quiet during the verses or full and loud throughout the bridge. “Was It You,” meanwhile, is the most creative Bailey gets as his simple and odd time signature is subdued in its complexity. These guys aren’t reinventing the wheel, of course, but they certainly earn points for trying.
Slowing things down doesn’t do anyone any favors, though. “Mental Illness” is tough to swallow as McKay’s attempts to stretch out her vocals fall flat. “And I’m happy when I’m angry/ I know that don’t make sense,” she croons during the early moments of the song, begging to be taken seriously. What may be lost on the singer, however, is that the only nonsensical thing about such an utterance is the inaccurate presumption around which it is based. Happiness and anger is not a marriage nearly as unique as she believes it is, and as her attempts to sustain the note go awry, only one of those qualities seem to be obtainable.
“Users,” the marathon album-closer, then shoots for the stars even though the band’s aim should have started with the clouds. At nearly seven minutes, it manages to combine almost all the elements that paint the release’s previous seven tracks, for better or for worse. Still, it becomes one of the few times the vocals don’t weigh down the performance entirely, making the case for McKay’s lower register as the one she should utilize more often. It’s not perfect, of course, but as Morrison’s guitar soars wonderfully during the song’s final third, it’s hard not to think of how high these guys could fly if they spent some more time raiding the depths of their collective imagination.
Because, remember, essential to any exploration is the presence of soul, the presence of something intangible that creates connection and enhances experiences. With this eight-song set, Old Receiver Band goes light on innovation and heavy on formula, creating a listening sensation akin to watching late-night reruns of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” an exercise bogged down by predictability that incites no real emotion one way or the other. You can’t fake your way through the things this release lacks, and to Old Receiver Band’s credit, not once does it seem like any of them as much as try.
Then again, sometimes the most disappointing moment of failure can breed the most affecting form of success, remember. And sometimes, as this quartet may very well prove in the future, it takes the presence of failure to ignite fire in an otherwise-stagnant soul.
** 2 STARS OUT OF 4 **