While a young band clawing its way to the top of the club circuit is far from a given, the question of what to do once the stars of chance have aligned is often too difficult for its members to answer. Next to actually learning the craft of writing, recording and performing songs, arriving at some semblance of a unique creative identity has to rank as the most pressing goal on the agenda of a band straining toward credibility. Unfortunately, this also happens to be the most difficult goal to achieve, straddling the tenuous line dividing innovators and imitators. For The Damnwells, Bastards of the Beat is the story of a band searching for its creative identity.
Having ridden a half-wave of hype that placed them somewhere between the next-big-thing in roots rock and the newest version of Wilco-lite, it would seem likely that The Damnwells’ true identity falls somewhere between these two descriptions. Over the course of the two EPs comprising their current recorded catalog, the New York quartet has shown just enough promise and plagiarism to justify the comments of journalists in either camp.
Vocalist Alex Dezen certainly does little to discourage the Jeff Tweedy comparisons, his charcoal croon and earnest phrasing almost welcoming the inevitable with prickly sentiments, acoustic strum and harmonica opening the disc. Having clearly blossomed from the sometimes tentative Americana of their earlier recordings into bolder, more polished sounds, those original elements which encouraged some to believe The Damnwells were auditioning for on-the-verge status (and, incidentally, prompted Epic to offer them a multi-album record contract) are similarly solidified. And if the mélange of ringing organ, cooing horns, and countrified guitar licks of “I’ll Be Around” or the ethereal swirl of “Sleepsinging” are any indication, there might be a couple modest radio hits on the way.
Still, no matter how much growth they display over these 12 tracks, the band’s triumphs are measured against the more commonplace elements rising prominently to the fore of the arrangements. Dezen, while a more-than-able vocalist, still lacks distinction as a writer, dealing in the stock metaphors of the genre while spinning out his odes to lost love. While he may deserve credit for taking the occasional lyrical risk, lines like “I will feed you fries with steak sauce / I will keep the price below cost,” are neither silly enough to be clever nor strange enough to be interesting.
And while their musical aesthetic is impressively long on craft, it is short on imagination, leaving the resulting songs immediately palatable but predictably familiar to more adventurous ears. Too many are crafted upon the same template: building from a pensive, questing verse into a gliding or rousing chorus. No doubt the payoffs are many and immediate, but one can’t help but get the feeling The Damnwells are capable of much more.
With their best moments falling somewhere between the humbly climatic pop-Americana of The Wallflowers (“The Lost Complaint”) and the gliding roots-pop of the Pernice Brothers (“Electric Harmony”), this is still the sound of a band working its way toward a consistent creative identity. And while moments like the disinterested string of non sequiturs comprising the R.E.M. shimmy of “New Delhi” suggest they may be inching within range of something truly their own, most of the disc is fairly indistinguishable from scores of like-minded bands.
The Damnwells may end up closer to Matchbox 20 on their way to Wilco, however Bastards of the Beat surely isn’t all bad news. Unlike Wilco, The Damnwells just might get played on the radio.