Music Review: Moses Cleveland – The Corner of Uncool and Care Avenue
I have to preface this by saying I don’t usually write music reviews, so if I sound particularly out of my element, that’s why. My friend Adam Rowings is a musician living in Chicago and he asked me to take a look at his latest album and let him know what I thought via this blog. Eager to hear what my buddy had been working on for the past year or so, I of course agreed. Granted this was a few months ago, so I fully expect Rowings to be shocked that I ever came through and then furious that I don’t know a damn thing about music. That being said, I’ll be happy to share my honest thoughts about the album right here, right now.
Rowings and I have both been long-time fans of The Hold Steady, Craig Finn’s lyrically brilliant master-class on bar room rock. You can check out a few of my favorite jams from their latest album here and here. It’s clear that Rowings is patently influenced by Finn’s lyrics and The Hold Steady’s ability to deliver thoughtful yet honest music in a hard rock package. That being said, Moses Cleveland is hardly a direct knock-off of the Hold Steady (although if you’re going to ape somebody, Craig Finn is not a bad choice) and it definitely has some really killer jams that are worthy of note based solely on their own merit. Never having written a review like this before, I’m just going to go down the track list song by song, as that makes the most sense to me:
1. The Story of Mack – This song has a nice little surfer rock lick to it, but the occasionally nasally parts of the vocals are a little grating. Once the song kicks into overdrive it’s a fun little jam, but I’m just not a fan of hearing my friend in a higher register when I know he can really belt it out in a lower growl. Rowings is a loud motherfucker when he wants to be, and I like hearing the power behind his voice resonating from his chest rather than his nasal cavity. Leave the whiny screams for Billy Corgan and keep it low, brother.
2. Torch – This is where the album really starts for me. Rowings is doing speak-singing in his normal register and the lick at the beginning leads into a really cool vocal refrain. Everything about this jam works for me, and you can really envision people singing along in concert (or at the bars, as the case may be). The guitar part is a sultry mix of blues and bluegrass and the vocals hang right in between both styles perfectly without ever seeming forced or too stylized. While echo and reverb can sometimes be a cheap effect used to make a song seem more layered than it actually is, here the deep sound quality slides right into place. Nice.
3. The Corner of Uncool and Care Avenue – The refrain is what really does it for me on this song. “We all get drunk, do drugs and sing songs,” is repeated over and over during the course of this number. This is where Craig Finn-spiration really comes into play. These lyrics could easily be trite or contrived if they were delivered by a less talented songwriter, but here they work in perfect synthesis with the hard rock pumping along in the background. Rather than serving as a promotional tool for face-value hedonism, the lyrics are more of a confession shouted to the Almighty from a human being set in his ways. Rowings is almost taunting an unseen deity with his words, asking God to strike him down if He actually does exist. There is pride in Rowings’ confession, in spite of the connotation it carries. I like that the lyrics really give voice to a character with a unique perspective, and that it’s not just an act or affected voice put on by Rowings. It’s an extension of his life experiences and speculations anthropomorphized by what he’s singing about. The phrasing of this track’s title (as well as the album title) is a little forced and admittedly awkward, but this song is so passionate that it entirely makes up for that. I love that there’s a part at the end where a bunch of voices come into play, joining the refrain and giving it a real barroom feel. That’s where it’s at, man. I definitely have to say that this is my favorite track on the album. When Rowings is belting it out from his chest, his vocals are at their absolute best. The passion of the music overrides everything else and makes this one a song to remember.
4. The Circus – Lyrics referencing “clever people” and “party people” definitely feel inspired by Craig Finn, but the tone of the music is distinct from Hold Steady and much of the other music on the album. Lyrical repetition and a less interesting guitar part draw unwanted comparisons to Stroke 9, especially when the licks and lyrics are so familiar by the end of the five minute song. Rowings’ vocals really hit a good spot by the four-minute mark, but by that point the song is mostly over. I would have preferred less repetition and musical breaks, as they give the listener unfavorable amounts of time to dissect what is already a moderately scanty concept.
5. Two Step Timmy’s Traveling Blues – This song reminds me of Doolittle era Pixies. That is in absolutely no way a bad thing. The lyrics are super catchy and the guitar part is all hells of strong. I don’t think the Pixies comparison is necessarily intentional. It’s more a reflection of just how quality the song is. Here Rowings is again making himself distinct from his inspirations, proving that he is a talent capable of delivering a unique sound. The music drops out at the end perfectly, leaving listeners with no choice but to immediately blast to this jam again like they’re craving a nicotine fix. Runner-Up for best song on the album. Fast, short and deliberate. Great song.
6. Terrorize – A little bit of Rage and a little bit of Smashing Pumpkins musically. The vocals are great, but the fact that this song isn’t quite as catchy as the one that precedes it, added to the fact that they are both very similar in tone does both jams a disservice by drawing all-too-clear comparisons. In the wake of Two Step Timmy, Terrorize just can’t compete. I would put this one earlier in the album, and maybe open as well as close with the intense rocking that ends the track. It’s not super shocking to hear an intense jam session at the end of a hardcore number (and any song called Terrorize damn well better have some hardcore influence), so making it more of a constant could up the song’s runtime as well as make it distinct and memorable.
7. Unmodest Marilyn – Here Moses Cleveland slows it down to a sexy little ballad. There’s as much influence from Hold Steady’s First Night as there is from Rowings’ love life. I like the fact that Moses Cleveland is ready to prove to their audience that they are versatile and capable of keeping the energy up even when the tempo is reined in a little. I can easily imagine this as part of a movie soundtrack, in the same way I can imagine that every car commercial in the business will be chomping at the bit to buy Two Step Timmy as soon as they hear it. Certain songs have an ability to create a specific mood immediately, and this is one of them.
8. So Say You – Starts out as a ballad then loses a little bit of its oomph as it transitions into weird sitar-style hallucinogen rock. The lyrics and vocals are strong until the transition, and then the weird background noises call into question what sort of vibe Moses Cleveland wants to leave the audience with. Rowings sounds particularly badass screaming “Hit Rock Bottom!” at the end of the song, but I really wish we didn’t have to sit through so much weird filler noise to get to that point. Some bands need cool audio tricks to reel in an audience, but Moses Cleveland isn’t one of them. The music and lyrics are great at standing alone and apart from other bands on the scene. As soon as the music swells back into its original tone, that point is hit home hard.
Well, that’s the full album. Overall I really liked it and was very impressed with what Rowings put together in spite of a few minor glitches along the way. Hopefully he’s not too mad at me for being nitpicky and will still let me come to his kickass New Year’s Party when I’m in Chicago next week. One thing’s for certain, I damn well better get to hear Corner of Uncool and Care Avenue live while I’m there!
Grade: 4 out of 5