On the Quad Cities-based band’s new disc, Inaba, that’s both a strength and a problem. On many tracks, the foursome’s wholesome approach works well, perfectly in-tune with the material. At other times, the band is too restrained, and the performances reveal some weakness in the songwriting.
The band – Liz Townsend on vocals, Leo Kelly on guitar, Bob Kelly on bass, and Greg Hipskind on drums – has been playing many of the songs on Inaba live for more than a year, so people who’ve seen the band perform recently will probably find a lot of the material familiar. (“Liz’s Song” appeared on the live benefit CD the Blackthorn Pub put out a little more than a year ago.)
The band proves to be consistent and reliable on the 11-track, 36-minute record. Townsend and her bandmates are commendably professional and polished, and the songs are generally taut.
The two highest points come late in the album: “Friends & Family” and the bonus track “No One to Blame but Me.”
“Friends & Family” is a jangly pop song that starts as pretty mundane and gets better as it goes along. The musical textures build, and the guitar solo has a fresh, organic feel that seems to flow from the song, rather than being added to it. (Similarly, “Crutch” finds the band in a melancholy mood, which suits Wicked Liz & The Bellyswirls.)
“No One to Blame but Me” suggests a future for Townsend as a folk singer. This simple acoustic arrangement features an interesting percussion backdrop, but mostly the instrumentalists let Townsend carry the song, and she’s spectacular.
The band lets loose most on the cover “When I Come Home,” and it almost works. The song wants to be sultry and soulful – you can hear Townsend channeling Joan Osborne – but it ends up just short.
On much of the record, everybody seems to want to punch it up a bit, but neither Townsend nor the band is able to do it convincingly. Take the fourth track, a funky upbeat number about, of all things, a creepy man who turns into an obsessed stalker after a week of dating. The lyric is at least somewhat tongue-in-cheek – “You’re really freakin’ me out” is not the line of somebody who’s truly scared – but the music is bouncily incongruent. The kiss-off song “So Long” similarly can’t seem to muster the bile the lyrics would suggest. (The album’s lyrical approach is unfortunately one-dimensional, straightforward and declarative, almost exclusively on relationships.)
The songs on Inaba are uncluttered and clean, with Townsend’s vocals front-and-center. Yet although the backing music is lively and varied, it frequently sounds a touch thin and underdeveloped. That seems mainly a function of the band being too tentative on harder numbers, and Townsend’s vocals don’t have the fullness to carry those songs. On slower tracks, though, her voice has an alluring depth and richness that fills the sound out. That’s a side I’d love to see the band develop.
Wicked Liz & The Bellyswirls will perform Friday, February 14, at The Bricktown in Dubuque. The disc can be ordered for $11 from Wicked Liz & The Bellyswirls; 2005 31st Street; Rock Island IL 61202. (Checks should be made out to Bob Kelly. For more information on the band and future show dates, visit (http://www.wicked-liz.com).