Six years ago, I wrote a less-than-glowing review of the Quad Cities band Rude Punch's Killin' It, highlighting the strength of one song as a contrast to the remainder. Overall, I faulted the album for "a lack of imagination."
With an opening like that, you can probably guess what's coming next. The rock-y reggae outfit is back with a new record - Lovers Rock - and it represents a major leap forward, with levels of polish, arrangement detail, and nuance that make it easy to look past its generic trappings.
The phrase "lack of imagination" still applies in some senses. Two songs from Killin' It - albeit the best tracks, "Rock for Me" and "Payment" - have been re-recorded for Lovers Rock. That album title references a romantic subgenre of reggae, which is an accurate enough description but is way too on the nose for a record name.
And despite hints on Lovers Rock that Rude Punch - guitarist/songwriter/singer Brady Jager, drummer/singer Adam Tucker, former bassist Al Sweet, and current bassist/singer Jack Hill - could be an expansive rockers-without-borders trio, the new record still feels overly rutted in reggae. It works as a stylistic base, yet it's constraining for the band's talents - a too-comfortable default.
Those complaints are minor, though. All of Lovers Rock's eight tracks are compelling, and clocking in at less than 33 minutes, the album breezes past with plentiful pleasures - with impeccable grooves, playfulness in the production, smart sequencing, and just enough detours from reggae.
Jager wrote that the new record was intended to introduce Rude Punch to a larger market, calling it the "first real professional effort we've done. ... This album was geared more toward the 'national audience,' all the people that we've built our network to over the past five years since the last release. We wanted to give our best material to give our first-time listeners and people that have been waiting to hear what we sound like."
In that sense, the title and stylistic safeness are appropriate, and the concision feels like a carefully crafted distillation.
Opener "1993" is loaded with two-decades-old references - and is about recording songs on cassette from the radio - yet Jager's vocals have a keening immediacy, helping the song transcend nostalgia; he seems to be channeling the heightened emotions of a kid. The track's subtle sitar-y flourish is a great little touch.
The ska-like horns of "Contact" bring the band from the early 1990s to the middle of that decade, but the song is no pastiche; the expert chorus has timeless pop appeal.
And that's the real draw of Rude Punch's new album. Even when the music errs on the rote side, the band knows how to goose it just right. The call-and-response male/female vocals of "Closer" have a creamy sexiness, a ridiculously effective come-on in song.
"Run Around" feels like an expansion of "Closer," with the quicker tempo, rock guitar, and keys suggesting something more complicated, and the lyrics confirming it in detailing the ups and downs of a relationship. Yet despite the subject matter, the band and Jager's singing keep the tone light, and it's among the most joyous trod-upon-lover songs I've heard - somebody so in love that he's happy to absorb some punishment.
And after six tracks of pretty straight reggae rock, the band lets loose with a one-two punch of songs that build on the base without being beholden to it.
"Bring Me to Life," lyrically, is a diatribe against music not played on traditional band instruments ("I'll pull the plug on this PA and you'll see / That silent computer and a no-talent DJ"), yet the break sells it - starting in the vein of the Police before a full-on rock assault.
And "Payment," as on Killin' It, is a superlative melding of reggae and jam rock - lean in its infectious, muscular groove and tight and patient in its eloquent bridge, with sharp punctuation in the chorus. Lovers Rock is wholly effective, but it soars when Rude Punch - on the final two songs - broadens its palette.
Rude Punch will perform an album-release show on Friday, August 21, at the Redstone Room (129 Main Street, Davenport; RiverMusicExperience.org). The 8 p.m. all-ages show also features Fairhaven. Cover is $7.
For more information on Rude Punch, visit Facebook.com/rudepunch.