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Mean Creek – The Sky (or the Underground)

on November 29, 2009, 8:00am
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I normally avoid most other reviews like some kind of biblical pestilence. However, somehow with Boston’s Mean Creek and its sophomore effort, I couldn’t help myself. I’ve always had this unfounded and borderline paranoid notion that my review would be contaminated by a fellow critic, but what I found in the reviews and my own listening experience don’t even belong to the same genus.

Chicagoist.com wrote that the band is best in “epic mode.” What is epic? I think of a larger, over the top sound that fills to capacity the air it shreds through. Sure, Mean Creek has moments of cock-suredness and grandiosity, but I don’t think the band is so much epic as they are simply fans of being loud. “The Patient” is that big sound that the reviewers are loving. However, it’s too big, too much like pop for a band that knows no genres or boundaries. It’s less big swagger and more bad Top 40 country from the late ’80s. Epic could also refer to some of the band’s lyrical content. This is a band who utilizes universal dilemmas regarding love and death. The album-ending “Wild Beasts” is seemingly a meditation on individualism and almost has anti-establishment leanings. However, as fun as pondering on our role on the planet is (like in “Face of the Earth”), it can be difficult to relate to.

Of course, perhaps, epic means an ambient sound, playing with the open space, like say, Pink Floyd. A perfect comparison if there ever was one, as a track like “Not Too Dream” sounds like some scratchy, less sophisticated version of a Floyd jam. While lead singer Chris Keene’s voice is eerily similar to Roger Waters, Keene’s version is like some overly wrought, non-joyful psychedelic trip through the injustices of society. Even as his voice strains on lines like “Politicians are coming for your daughters and sons/They’ve built their homes on what was once your sand/There’s no room for you in the promise land,” it seems more like flattery than boundary hopping.

Speaking of flattery, within the first moments of the opening title track, you’ll notice Keene’s vocal similarity to Neil Young. Undoubtedly, that is the prominent reason why Spin.com wrote, “Mean Creek commence a sharp blend of country-core.” I think the trademark of a good band who can mix the heaviness of rock and the down-home feel of country is the ability to get a little dirty, mix it up a bit, and keep things unkempt and chaotic. A song like “It’s Good To Be Back Again” sounds like good country-core on the surface. There are plenty of big rumbling guitars and some hefty twang with a twist to it, but like the band’s nod to Floyd, it sounds too planned and rehearsed, and not nearly messy enough. While the mere thought of a singer that croons like Young in front of this plentiful wall of sound is good on paper, the shtick gets old quickly, and one is left waiting to be fulfilled.

Enter the two real standout tracks of “Beg and Plead” and “Light Into Dark”. In the most simplistic explanation, they stand out like sore thumbs, in that both sound like early ’90s rock Nada Surf style. “Light Into Dark” really does hit home the most, emotionally speaking. It is akin to a conversation with a girl you’ve known forever. Its structure is less “epic”, and it chugs along with a slightly distorted guitar and Keene vocals that sound like a nasally version of Young (i.e. less of a direct rip-off and more of an organic tribute). “Beg and Plead” is more of the same, but finds Keene stretching more, away from the nods to past heroes and emotional strain and toward the underwhelming nervousness that comes off as so very real and exciting. To prove that they can truly mix and match sounds, a song like “Radio Drought” is a perfect near-end of album boost. It combines some of that ’90s alternative rock energy with the acoustic goodness and a thematic aim that is one part John Mellencamp and one part harmonious social critic.

It seems the album title is sort of an unanswered question regarding the band’s overall direction. Do they go the way of the the underground (the heavy rock, the grit of country, and reflections on life)? Or, do they fly up through the sky (the big guitars, plentiful feedback/effects, and cultural condemnations)? While others say both, the space in between that’s represented by a few fleeting moments makes for an album and a sound that could potentially rocket the band forward, if the unauthentic chameleon act that sometimes dominates the effort doesn’t sink Mean Creek beforehand.

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