The Secret Machines
Ten Silver Drops
hey should be playing arenas."
This statement is generally the lament of snobs whose just-left-of-the-dial favorites are toiling with 9-to-5s and $6 triple-bills while Audioslave does a better job of filling out hockey rinks than the NHL. More often than not, it's a complaint about exposure; MTV is compromising Passover's sacred traditions by making leaning a 24/7/365 activity, radio's not even worth bitching about anymore, and for all the hype about blogs-as-equalizers, T.I. probably moved more units during the time it takes to eat a grilled cheese sandwich than Tapes 'n' Tapes ever will. Maybe if all that were different, a five-second sitcom spot would be a springboard to fame rather than a glass ceiling.
This isn't the case with The Secret Machines, who should be playing in arenas for a more fundamental reason: their booming sound is unfairly disadvantaged by being confined to small spaces, such as smaller rock clubs and compact discs. "Daddy's in the Doldrums" might sound pretty spectacular with the right multimedia stage extravaganza, and it might sound pretty spectacular coming from the stereo of a lunar rover. But in headphones and home systems, even the most accomplished of bowl smokers will have their patience exhausted by its stultifying eight-and-a-half minute runtime.
The uneventfulness of "Daddy's in the Doldrums" is a tidy, if lengthy, summary of why The Secret Machines will likely never rock the Midland Arena; while Reprise presumably has enough resources to put on the full-court press, the Machines play with a stifling humility that works against the grandiose framework of their music. Releasing an album consisting of eight tracks clocking in at 44 minutes all but assures you a host of comparisons from the most canonical of '70s bands; you're allowed some kind of indulgence. Yet, there are no heroic solos or bombastic power chords, no weighty lyrical conceits, no skyscraping hooks, no mystery, and no sex. And even though Benjamin Curtis' canyon-filling drum sound was the most distinctive feature of Now Here Is Nowhere, and, let's be honest, the only reason they got likened to Led Zeppelin, the volume's been cranked down to the point where he might as well be playing a bongo kit with paintbrushes. The spastic soloing in the outro of "I Hate Pretending" is most likely a reward for the 40+ minutes of muted clockwork that surround it.
While most of the hype surrounding Now Here Is Nowhere invoked Zep and Floyd (two of its songs did sound like "Breathe"), the majority of Ten Silver Drops is not that far removed from the deep cuts of X&Y, mid-tempo strummers supplemented with e-bow laser beams and bathed in astral reverb. It's not really progress, but this style works in their favor on the album's opening trio. After sounding exactly like "Don't Stop Believin'" for ten seconds, "Alone, Jealous, & Stoned" stacks chords with intricacy and fragility, recalling an unsteady Jenga puzzle before Curtis gives it a double-time backbone halfway through. Despite disarmingly earthbound lyrics, "All at Once" and "Lightning Blue Eyes" actually sound like flowing silver and split the difference between two of their strongest tracks of the past, the luminous "You Are Chains" and the propulsive "Nowhere Again."
While it's not unprecedented for a single dud to take up nearly one-fifth of an album, a band is usually wise enough to sequence it to the front or back. The aforementioned "Daddy's In The Doldrums" sinks Ten Silver Drops all by itself; as the midway point, it only makes the inequality between Side 1 and Side 2 all the more glaring. It's easy to combat it with the ">>" button for the first few listens, but after sampling the goods thereafter, you'll move on to hitting "?." The later tracks are memorable only in pieces; the chorus of "I Hate Pretending" is jarring in context with the rest of the album's lyrics ("there's an undercover cop parked right across the road"), but as a whole, it never becomes more than a half-assed true crime story. The liquid mercury guitar line that opens "I Want to Know" heralds something far more heroic than the tail-chasing melody that follows it. "1000 Seconds" tries to cheat its way into a dramatic finale it doesn't deserve by turning up the volume and reverb, but it ends up being the sonic equivalent of running underwater.
Even before the release of Ten Silver Drops, April hasn't been the best month for space cadets. Wayne Coyne and pals took a magic balloon ride up their own asses, Craig Nicholls courted heavy rotation with embarrassingly obvious reverse psychology, and Brian Molko once again proved he should've quit music before drugs. While it's admirable that The Secret Machines are trying to solidify their niche as the go-to guys for soundtracking laser light shows (or at least My Morning Jacket for indoor kids), Ten Silver Drops is a sideways moonwalk that won't get them any further away from the planetarium circuit.