Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Stratocruiser -- Egg Shells (2008)

Stratocruiser -- Egg Shells (New Atlas Digital)

The latest from this North Carolina band finds the ‘cruiser straddling the line between pop, as melodies and hooks are pretty much mandatory for every track, and a retro ‘70s rock approach. So it’s boogie band intensity with classic song structures -- and none of that tired boogie. I like the results.

These cats are true craftsmen. They can write and they can play. What really makes the band stand out is Clay Howard’s robust vocals. I could easily hear Howard singing straight blues based material or Southern rock. But he doesn’t go for that sort of style, keeping his intensity but harnessing any tendencies to show off (or even worse, bellow). Heck, he can even handle a sweet slice of ‘60s kissed jangle pop (on "Clear as Day").

But I like it best when the songs are more emotional and desperate. Stratocruiser has developed a flair for the dramatic, which comes through in spades on the title cut. Howard opens with this couplet: "I have to tiptoe around your move/and I hope I can find my groove." He sings this over an attractive acoustic guitar bed, augmented by some nice blues licks. And the blues are appropriate, since Howard is stuck with a lover who has him worried at every turn. The strong hook in the chorus brings it all home, so to speak.

In a similar vein, but even more dramatic, is "Light Sleeper". This song moves from verse to bridge to chorus in speedy fashion for a mid-tempo bluster. "You say you only lie when you’re sleeping/so I’m hopin’ that you are awake/and that you are a light sleeper" goes the chorus. It’s a somewhat corny/clever notion that might fit a country song. It sounds like a pop hit bid from The Marshall Tucker Band or The Henry Paul Band.

Most importantly, Stratocruiser gets the tone right. Too over the top, and this would be camp and not as fun. Too unserious, it would turn from an urgent plea to silly piffle. Instead, it sounds like a blast from the past in the best way possible.

While not as rock and rolling as the last album, there is one song that hits the classic rock bullseye. With just a bit of manipulation, "Rolling Green Fields" could be a Black Crowes song. Instead, it comes off more like a really darned good Free wannabe, with a fail safe lead guitar part that makes it instantly memorable. And I just love, love, love the pretty middle eight (think of Paul Rodgers singing about "love in a peaceful world" on "Wishing Well" - it’s a bit reminiscent of that).

This all works so well because the band has the basic requirements of this style down and learns one lesson that many bands from the bygone area missed -- never plod. While Stratocruiser never reaches terminal velocity, the songs move along with just enough momentum that the riffs, lead guitar lines and melodies hit with an impact. One more example of this is the powerful "By Design".

I have no idea who the audience is for this music. But I’d like to think that there are some bars in North Carolina where patrons can’t wait until Stratocruiser hits the stage again.

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