Pujol seemed like an odd pairing with Saddle Creek when I first heard of the signing last year. In 2011, the band released X File on Main Street a surprise find that got me interested not only in the band, but in the Nashville scene as a whole, playing lo-fi garage rock with a rough, dirty edge.
Well, United States of Being marks the Saddle Creek debut and, while its got the same notable style, the sound is cleaned up, poppier, and with a higher quality of recording. It’s not so much in song structure or writing where the difference lies, but in the backing vocals that surface in songs like “Providence” and “Dark Knight in Shining Armor.” That, and some of the entendre lyricism is toned down on this one. Meanwhile, the songs are fleshed out more fully, giving a full band sound instead of the sometimes minimal approach heard on X File. Last time around, I wrote of “a pop feel minus the gloss”—well, there’s some gloss on this one.
The lyrics are direct and simple, often in couplets, which fits the neatly structured songs as namesake Daniel Pujol sings “DIY 2K/ A Starbucks in the library” in “DIY2K.” It’s simple, but it fits with the song’s clarity. Later, in “Made of Money,” he utilizes the spelling-out-words trick which, again, is nothing new, but it fits the style of music perfectly. “DIY2k” acts in many ways as a mission statement for the record, and the ideas within carry from track one to twelve. Drifting back to the simplicity concept: Pujol isn’t reinventing any form of rock’n’roll here. The band succeeds by taking the familiar and making it their own. In short, they master an already established sound. And they’re good at it.
Compared with its predecessor, United States offers a wider tonal variety. “Endless Mike” is an acoustic song that doesn’t let up—it’s not a ballad as much as a change of instruments—and “Reverse Vampire” jumps out by pushing the bass up in the mix, including a few leading notes. Instead of going the ballad route to mix it up, the band slows the tempo without playing with dynamics, as in “Psychic Pain,” which brings in some calmer strumming and tones down the drumming, but it follows the usual structure and delivery, relying heavily on Pujol’s rough voice to relay emotion. When the backing vocals kick in, things feel a little manufactured. “Black Rabbit,” somewhat straddles the two styles. It’s a pop song through and through, with backing keys and a catchy refrain, still the guitars dominate the song and the Pujol’s vocals lead the song. As it progresses, they keep the vocals with Pujol only (no back-ups) and it pays off.
All in all, the record is a pleasant listen but a bit inconsistent. When at its strengths, playing direct and gritty garage rock, Pujol stands out as a force to watch. Songs like “Mission from God” and “Keeper of Atlantis” stand out and make me dream of a record full of similar tunes. When more elements are added to the mix, the heart seems to be lost to a poppier sound and the songs suffer. While the recording quality is improved this time around, it’s feels a bit flat after X File, as I was hoping this record would elevate the band.
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