Age, sometimes, can be more than a mere number. It can be a virtue, it can be a detriment. It can suggest a lack of competency, it can suggest an essential level of youthful ignorance. No matter which way you cut it, a 17-year-old boy could never make a blues album as sharp and as weathered as a 71-year-old man — just like a 71-year-old man could never capture the imagination, vibrance and hope that a 17-year-old boy would effortlessly exude on a pop album. Anyone who claims age is meaningless in music isn’t listening.
Local duo Ash To None are young. Very young. Rising from the … ashes … of Grand Elusion, a rock band of high-schoolers intent on putting their best foot forward with a self-titled set no more than three years ago, Noah Hawes and Evan Tritapoe have taken it upon themselves to expand their abilities and take the next step in evolving their repertoire. In addition to the crunchy guitars, middle-road bass and hesitant drums, these guys add strings, keys and a saxophone, among other things, to help round their sound out on their latest set, “Changes to Come.”
The result is … well, it’s the sound of two dudes growing. They work best when the angst is dialed back. “Everything Is One” is adult-contemporary balladry in the vein of a classic rock radio station playing the most memorable hits from the ‘70s. Tritapoe’s high-octave vocals give the proceedings a grandiose vibe, drawing a contemporary comparison to band like fun., while Hawes’s guitar work is so majestic, you almost feel like each string should be wearing its own set of spandex. It’s the most grown-up the duo sounds.
“Two Strangers” floats in and out of that same territory with swing and a Something Corporate-ian pop sense. Adding depth to the track is a chorus of lush vocal harmonies that reveal themselves midway through, ultimately giving way to a tasteful saxophone and a rock-God guitar solo that builds before Tritapoe reasserts himself. Dynamism is tough to accomplish no matter what year you were born, but these guys understand its relevance as good as any other group around.
Speaking of age, the only real time their inexperience shows is when they stretch themselves too thin. Opener “The Message” is a weird amalgam of Collective Soul straight-forward rock and the days when hip-hop meshed with as much to top charts. Based around an incessant guitar riff and splitting into two after a synth-heavy instrumental bridge, log and behold, a rap breaks out of nowhere and it’s for no real good reason. Unless your name is U2, the whole self-serious look never tends to work out well, and if you combine those ethos with a D-Grade 311 section … yikes.
Still, all is not lost with a song like “Escape Your Hell,” which borrows from that aforementioned Omaha band while ditching the hip-hop and embracing the reggae. Because you just know that any band who sounds like this will always have its token Rastafari moment, it’s hard not to applaud these guys for pulling it off well enough to earn a passing grade. Sure, the groove wavers a bit, and yeah, you shouldn’t expect anything near a roots approach, but shoot: Any reggae is better than no reggae, right?
More importantly, however, is the two-song suite, composed by Hawes, that expands to 11 minutes. “At Peace with the Demons” parts one and two is an ambitious attempt to jump further than these lads probably can at this point in their careers. Beginning with a down tempo that impressively shifts in time signature, the move earns the group infinite points for effort, but without a certain amount of heft, it falls flat more often than it inspires. And that’s a tough thing to embrace, considering how it falls over the course of two songs at more than 10 minutes.
Even so, none of this is to imply that “Changes to Come” is a failure. It’s merely the audible proof that you don’t have to look far from home to find kids who are trying their hardest to take this music thing seriously. So the performances aren’t always skin tight and Ash To None are in serious need of getting serious about remedying their own identity crisis. But so what? If nothing else, these 10 tracks show that age doesn’t have to be one or the other — a blessing or a curse. In fact, it can be both at the same time.
And in some ways, these songs prove that Noah Hawes and Evan Tritapoe are beyond the years the number next to their names suggest.
** 2 1/2 STARS OUT OF 4 **