Music can be such a powerful tool, don’t you think? It can make you feel better. It can bring people together. It can incite passion for both better and worse. It can prove points. It can make you feel connected. It can be revealing. It can serve as the most potent element of some of your most unforgettable memories by providing unbelievably vivid soundtracks.
The Duke Street Liberation Army Band wants you to know how much they believe in the power of music with their latest set, “Arsenal of Love.” Fueled by a sort of come-as-you-please open mic vibe, these 15 songs were borne out of “The Cosmos,” as their Facebook page claims (it’s their hometown, of course), and the list of band members runs so long, you wonder if there might be David Foster Wallace novels that take less time to get through. They use something called an Egyptian tar.
It’s somewhat ironic, then, that it’s this very approach to writing and recording that serves as the Liberation Band’s Achilles heal. Sure, the approach is easy enough to understand — let’s invite all the friends and anyone who doesn’t have a musical background can pick up a kazoo! — but sometimes good intention can be marred by inadequate execution, and while you can’t fault anyone for keeping a group of comrades together through decades, you can certainly take issue with some of of their artistic output.
But not all of their artistic output, mind you. The most frustrating thing about “Arsenal of Love” is the shade of potential that allows the record to hit the ground running. Whomever takes the vocal lead on opener “Another Coronado” — Greg Engle, John Terlazzo and Steve Seyler are the only listed names in the liner notes for male vocals and while Engle wrote this, it’s nearly impossible to tell who is whom throughout the album — does a great job at being the voice child of Bob and Jacob Dylan (as unsettling as that visual might be). There’s something contextually cool about the tones that escape the singer’s mouth, and Mike Statler’s harmonica provides a soulful layer to the mid-tempo acoustic groove.
“Marked For the Flame,” the follow-up, goes on to succeed with beautiful melancholy and a weary combination of weathered voices that makes you believe in the sadness of what you’re hearing. Moving at a waltz’s pace, it’s the set’s most haunting moment. “Guess I’m Dreaming” then goes on to be the first time these guys flirt with that whole music-as-a-tool thing, the coffeehouse undertones accentuated by lyrics that feel as though they were written with protest, love and unity in mind.
Or, as the DSLA band themselves claim to be, “a group of about 30 young hippies” in 1973 or 1974. Again, Facebook.
Actually, if two really is company and three will forever be a crowd, then in the context of these area musicians … well, yikes. Too often do these songs sound loose, which, as it goes, turns out to be a direct indictment on drummer Roy Frush, proving that in the case of the Duke Street Liberation Band, no, there’s no good reason to give the drummer some.
In fact, these songs could exist very well without the help of percussion. Take “The Serpent & The Dove.” Anchored by a violin line that has a hard-enough time keeping time as it is, the track feels far too thoughtless than any track on any CD someone ever pays money to produce ever should. Frush alternates between patterns and the word “syncopation” appears to be in nobody’s vocabulary. Feel the warmth of your face getting red as you become weirdly embarrassed for the band. Ditto for “Nothing to Defend” and “Stands a Different Man,” which are both oftentimes too sloppy to stomach from a stick-man standpoint.
Even when the drum kit is traded in for traditional percussion, the results are less than stellar. “Song of Deliverance,” while charmingly campfire-ish, doesn’t necessarily need someone banging on something in the background in order for it to work, and “How Much Is Enough?” stumbles right out of the gate, a sliding bass note not entirely lining up with the first strike of its brother instrument. The songs themselves aren’t hopeless as mere songs, but the inclusion of unnecessary (and inadequate) musicianship overshadows almost every performance featured here.
And it’s a shame. Because if these guys wanted to answer their own “how much is enough” question, they should have looked further within themselves while concocting “Arsenal of Love.” Because sometimes you don’t need random shouts dissipating aimlessly in the background, and sometimes a simple acoustic guitar and a heartfelt voice is enough to do the job you’re trying to do.
So if all the Duke Street Liberation Army Band wanted to do was gather their friends and get something recorded, good for them; they succeeded. But, if they were looking to release something worth listening to for anyone not exclusive enough to be included in that group of about 30 young hippies, then they need to revisit the drawing board. Besides: As any worthwhile branch of military should already know, winning the war is far more valuable than walking away victorious from any given battle.
And with “Arsenal of Love,” nobody wins.
* 1 1/2 STARS OUT OF 4 *