Culture Coup, Blue Faith Sunrise
Music rooted in reggae has an inherent warmth, and that's certainly true with the Quad Cities quintet Culture Coup on its debut album, Blue Faith Sunrise. But it doesn't take much time with the record to notice that there's a drag on that vibe, an early-adult ennui in the vocals and lyrics.
Rather than being a wet blanket, however, that contradiction actually enlivens the 11-track whole - bringing a welcome complexity to a style that too often feels one-dimensional to me.
Lead singer/guitarist Ben Miller, guitarist/singer Chris Miller, drummer Jack McNeil, bassist Jim Drain, and keyboardist/singer Joey Pautsch successfully meld the building blocks of reggae with indie-rock's youthful angst, and crucially they never coast on easy grooves. Every song features some combination of compositional depth and articulate playing, particularly in the drums and lead guitar. There's often a magical interplay among the instruments, a cohesive collection of distinctive voices.
The opening trio of tracks is particularly strong. The title track has a softened pummel of drums and a quiet closing hiss that grab the ears, undermining expectations. "Chase That Feeling" opens with a sunny lightness that subtly shifts to yearning, mirroring the words' transition from childhood to maturity - both wasted on trivial conflict. And "Seventh House" picks up the tempo to clear away the light clouds of its predecessors.
The musical buoyancy and fluency are balanced by an earnestness in the singing and lyrics, and that combination works despite the vocal components feeling a touch too plain against the instruments - clearest on the rushed struggle through the words of "Give It to Me Straight."
Like the vocals, the album's production is too straightforward and static, although each instrument has an appealing clarity and fullness."Give It to Me Straight" has an occasionally aggressive manipulation of the vocals, and it's jarring - but it also hints at the possibilities of pairing the thoughtful compositions with an equally rigorous sonic treatment.
The album has an unfortunate pairing in "Jack & the Bass Talk" and "Napalm Butter," both funky and the latter adding hip hop to the mix. Neither is a disaster, but they lack the lyrical ambivalence underpinning the rest of the album, and Culture Coup doesn't commit to them fully enough to give them flight. These songs are largely salvaged by the instrumental dexterity (especially "Napalm Butter"), but they would have worked better with some breathing room between them. (Both songs and the acoustic "Wayfarer" sound a little much like Flight of the Conchords without the jokes.)
A contrast to "Napalm Butter" is the similar rap/funk fusion "Railspike," which has enough muscle, energy, and conviction to effectively recall the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The guitar distortion finally matches the force of the drums, and the vocals at last have an appropriate rock affectation. It's not Blue Faith Sunrise's best song, but it's the one that feels most fully formed and developed in every aspect. I look forward to seeing if the band can bring that level of vigor to more of its promising and generally accomplished songs.
Culture Coup's Blue Faith Sunrise is available on iTunes and Spotify.
Milk Duct Tape, Styrofoam Tombstone
The Iowa City trio Milk Duct Tape unapologetically bills itself as grunge, and its wonderfully titled EP Styrofoam Tombstone certainly delivers on that pledge with its myriad tuneful hooks. But rather than sounding like a relic of the early 1990s, it plays like timeless hard rock - wholly engaging and largely successful despite lacking a clear personality of its own.
An obvious forebear is Queens of the Stone Age, with Milk Duct Tape's interest in vocal accessibility (on "Falling Down with You," "Land Locked Beach," and "Turkish Delight") and instantly infecting riffs, but there's also Slayer-style menace (on "Black Stained Heart"), a Nirvana-like flatness, whine, and buzz (on "Vamping"), and even the ever-welcome cowbell. Tying it all together is a massive production blend of sludge and front-loaded drums that can be brittle, thundering, or both at once.
So, yes, it's a bit too beholden to influences, but you could do much worse, and they're fully digested and natural.
And there's also a promising outlier: "Glass Bad Ass." It's at once the most-throwaway track on the EP and the song that hints at ways Milk Duct Tape can find an idiosyncratic voice. With its ridiculous but lived-in mix of slinky, jangly groove, stoner lyrics and lead singing, pop backing vocals, piercing bass, and devil-may-care attitude, you can hear an ensemble that sounds like itself rather than just channeling some really good acts.