Leave No Ashes
hiladelphia's Burning Brides are one of those bands that writers claim are "here to save rock", though by their sheer numbers alone these acts tend to belie the notion that rock needs saving (or, judging by their quality, is worth saving). But assuming one isn't looking for anything too grand, the Brides' pleasurable moments are plentiful, and the new record is a rocking good time. I'll take them over eye-rollers like the Hives any day of the week.
I saw the Brides a few years back, just a trio of innocent young rockers out on the road and eager to make good, and was blown away. They had quite a package: boundless energy, killer riffs, shaggy hair and hot-chick bassist. They delivered a hell of a show, and left the audience eager for the next one. Since then, they've gone from perpetual opening act to Buddyhead favorites to summer festival second-stage mainstay to boutique-major V2 Record's latest casual attempt at a breakthrough. The Fall of the Plastic Empire, their debut, was promising enough, sporting sludgy guitars and thundering drums pounding out the simple, fist-pumping tunes. Leave No Ashes cleans up the sound considerably, as frontman Dimitri Coats grows more confident as a songwriter.
Producer George Drakoulias (the Black Crowes, plenty of lesser lights from Rick Rubin's old Def American stable) gives the band a crisp, no-frills sound, free of cheesy tricks like ultra-compressed guitars and gated reverb-laden drums, in what I would imagine was an attempt to capture the band's live sound. It doesn't really work, because it's too clean. Live rock doesn't sound clear. It's a mess, particularly when the amps are this loud. If you're familiar with the band's first album, you'll find yourself longing for the harsh fuzz of blown-out guitar. The decorative touches (pianos, organs, percussion) are nice but don't make up for that missing edge. This is a band that needs a little lo-fi in their sound to be truly effective.
As for the songs, the formula is simple, familiar and, for the most part, effective. We start with two, three, maybe even four simple chords. Your basic blues sets work best, along with the major-key standards. To add a little tension, we throw in an atonal turning chord somewhere in the progression: a flat-V, say, or a sharp-I, maybe a flat-VII in a major progression. Add a catchy riff on top; just a few pentatonic notes is enough, and play 'em all on the low-E string for maximum rocking effect. Throw this over the intro, the chorus or both. If you like, change keys entirely for the solo after the second chorus, then return triumphantly to the original progression for one final chorus. And don't just shout for the vocals, try to sing, even if it's just a few notes. A little hook can go a long way.
The first two-thirds of the album adhere pretty closely to the above method, and it gets a little monotonous. Don't get me wrong: the songs are good. But only the poppy "Come Alive", with its uncannily Oasis-like melody and cheeky backing vocals, really stands out. The problem isn't a lack of hooks. It's the arrangements. A few left-field moments, like the tempo shifts in "King of the Demimonde" or the trippy bridge in "Dance with the Devil," make me wish there were more ideas like that throughout the record. And Coats' Lil’ Badass lyrics don't help either; titles like "Heart Full of Black" and "Pleasure in the Pain" are plenty indicative of the My First Attitude Problem sensibility at work here.
But on the last few songs Coats takes some chances, and it pays off. "From You" sports his strongest vocal melody over an alt-country leaning tune that ratchets down the aggression a bit. "Last Man Standing" is the ballad, with a slower but not subdued performance by the band, featuring a falsetto note or two and even strings (synth I think, but still). Finally, "Vampire Waltz" slows down even further, as the album closes with a funereal sea chantey, complete with an all-star chorus of "pirates" that includes Mark Lanegan, Mike Watt and Keith Morris (!?). It's a promising note to end on, one that leaves me believing the Brides may have more to offer than mere headbanging, and looking forward to their next album.
Reviewed by: Bjorn Randolph
Reviewed on: 2004-07-26