Don’t say The Dead Ships is just another clone for The Hold Steady, even though they have a “the” in their name. Sure, singer Devin McCluskey has a growl in his voice and tends to write with some snap. (The album title is a reference to how people who commit suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge tend to face the city when they jump.) Yes, the songs have a sense of place and point a few fingers here and there. The songs have a bit more garage-rock cred, being born out of a serendipitous meeting when McCluskey and drummer Chris Spindelilus jammed in an apartment and coalesced like butter on bread. Their music has that same big sound, though—stadium rock played in clubs with names like The Echo (possibly named by someone who didn’t realize that’s not what you want when you are playing on stage). OK, go ahead and name-check The Hold Steady, but don’t miss this cathartic rock debut.
Let me give you a big tip on these songs, though. They are loud and sound like they were performed live onto tape. This is not twee earbud music. For several days, I had them restricted to an office setting and then decided to bring a massive Bluetooth speaker outside and absolutely blew the roof off my house and the scared neighbor’s cat. “Los Feliz” explodes from the opening chord and never relents, slowing to a sludge only to let you catch your breath. It’s called folk punk for a reason. There’s a hard edge, songs stretching against the grain and pushing the limits of what the drum set manufacturer normally allows. You can imagine the band running around on stage, throwing mics at each other, drinking beer, and possibly coughing up a cigarette-stained lung when they go all ironic on the song “Big Quiet” which is heavy on drums and bass, somewhat light on melody, and focused squarely on the throaty lyrics. They sing about white noise, bad choices and fatal mistakes from a knowing perspective.
I mentioned the finger pointing. That’s on full display on the opening track “Company Line” about making sacrifices to the corporate monolith. I get that, I’ve lived it, but I’m not sure I want to be reminded about how people leave their wife behind and getting old. Yes, you leave a shockwave behind when you choose money over purpose, and compromise is represented by a big stack of bills, but let’s not get too specific about that (and calling it facism is a bit strong). “Spun Yarns” talks about building Rome all over again and changing the names of famous landmarks, but the writing is never as detailed as what Craig Finn writes about. At times, it devolves into something more like Augustines that feels a bit too generic and meant only to pummel you.
A good example of what doesn’t work is “Canyon” that lacks a melodic hook. It’s driving, it’s guttural, it would work at the State Fair to get people moving, but you sort of forget the song after it ends. The Dead Ships write songs that work in a live setting, but most of us are commuting in a car to work or listening at work. There aren’t enough hooks or memorable lines. Later songs that remove some of the sting from the music and the lyrics feel even more like that one band that played at that one festival you can’t remember anymore. I see some promise in the opening songs, and The Hold Steady reference ultimately sticks, but you end up wanting a bit more. The music needs more Springsteen and less knock-off The Strokes soundalikes.