It’s so easy to look at Sepia and think “alternative rock.” And while the label has been thrusted upon them since they began releasing records in 2013, it’s not hard to see why. Ryan Beckelman’s voice sits firmly in the space between the obvious (Bush’s Gavin Rossdale) and the obscure (Mayfield Four-era Myles Kennedy). The songs plod along, for the most part, at a mid-tempo destined to be played during an era when rock music was a much bigger part of the mainstream.
Or in other words, you love your WHFS. You need your WHFS.
What’s not nearly as easy to decipher, though, is if it’s any good. Like a pop hook with your crunchy guitars? These guys have you covered. Prefer pristine production and a beefy, well-rounded sound? That’s harder to come by on the quartet’s latest 10-song LP, “Drop Dead, Gorgeous.” While the songs are adequately crafted — if not just a little too predictable at times — the more glaring aspect of the recording is the production. The drums aren’t full. The guitars aren’t punchy. The bass is barely noticeable.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a track more guilty of that than the opener, “Change For You.” Derek Falzoi’s drums constantly feel like they’re playing catchup, as the song’s groove never settles into anything remotely comfortable. Because of as much, the performance feels too loose, an outline for an artistic idea that could succeed with a better studio engineer and drums that feel more planted, more confident. Instead, the listener is left with something that feels forced — insincere, even.
The good part, though, is that it gets better — and it happens almost immediately, with the significantly tighter “Cool.” Beginning with a simple guitar line, this is where Beckelman truly gets his Mr. Machinehead on, offering breathy vocals that fall right in line with anything from “Sixteen Stone” and beyond. Better yet is the pre-chorus interlude that serves as a legitimate opportunity to dance through those oversized JNCOs you know you’ll be wearing. It combines for one of the better moments on the record.
As for what’s the best moment on the record … that title can probably go to “Hard To Tell,” which showcases a more rounded, versatile side of the band. Centered around an acoustic guitar that owes at least something to the pop-grass that had its hot minute in the Top 40, it works, if in no other way, as a reprieve from the gloomy aesthetics painting the other nine songs. It’s bright, it moves well, and as a welcome surprise, Beckelman’s voice actually translates solidly into another genre, which is way more impressive than a first glance might suggest. Sure, it can feel a tiny bit hokey at times, but these guys deserve credit for leaving their comfort zone and succeeding.
That softer side does them well again on “Delaware,” the most made-for-pop-radio moment within the collection. Again driven by an acoustic guitar, this time the band gravitates back toward its mid-tempo center and what you have is the best thing DC 101 never heard in 1996. And as if the downtrodden vibe wasn’t ‘90s-ified enough, the pretty guitar solo that paints the bridge certainly makes you want to set that VCR to record the next episode of “120 Minutes.” Nostalgia can be a great thing when you use it correctly.
Sadly, it’s not used correctly everywhere throughout the record. “Better Out Than In” tries to kick up the speed and much like “Change For You,” the approach doesn’t do the group any favors despite a tasteful guitar riff that opens up throughout each hook. And while there are things to value in the album’s de facto single “Marionette,” it’s hard not to sigh when Beckelman decides to trade in actual words for a flurry of “na-na-nas” for the latter half of the bridge. Mirroring an infectious guitar riff, it’s the type of decision that can work in moderation, but its insistence here makes the move feel lazy.
Yet lazy isn’t quite the word to sum up Sepia’s problems throughout “Drop Dead, Gorgeous.” It’s easy to tell that they care, they try, they do their best. Some moments work better than others while other moments don’t work at all (“I hope you know/I hope you know/This isn’t cool anymore” is a really tough line to swallow, given the way they deliver it). But regardless of subjective success, you can at least take solace in knowing that this album will shoot you right back into simpler, more innocent time in mainstream music.
“You make me stupid,” Ryan Beckelman constantly insists on “Born Yesterday.” It’s not that bad, dude … but there’s definitely room to learn.
** 2 STARS OUT OF 4 **