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Strange Boys - Be Brave

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Artist: Strange Boys

Album: Be Brave

Label: In the Red

Review date: Feb. 22, 2010

The opening moments of a record are prime real estate for throwing a wrench in the program. This comes in multiple forms, but most often shock and awe. Case in point would be the initial barrage of "Like a Rolling Stone." Or what Bruce Springsteen aptly described as a "snare shot that sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind."

Then there’s the deflationary technique. Which is exactly what goes down for the Strange Boys on "I See." It’s very much a Dylanesque collision of sound, but one that sounds completely flat. The harmonica follows a flaccid sing-song melody instead of burning barns. And main man Ryan Sambol drawls on, vaguely, about the faces he’s seen. The song languishes to such a degree as to make the album title, Be Brave, sound like a joke.

But on whom? An argument could be made for both camps. On the one hand, the Strange Boys might have lost it by popping the lid on their first record. Basement tapes are usually successful because of their limited ambition when it comes to widespread appeal. Self-awareness, not self-consciousness, keeps them insulated. The end result is an echo chamber that just amplifies weird ideas and turns them into something wild and fresh and sought after. something The Strange Boys and Girls Club was full of.

Once word gets out, though, and people pick up on what’s going down, it usually means the jig is up. Naïve movement gets weighed down by the anxiety that comes from the need to be putting on the hits. The next set of songs has to move things up and to the right. When these original ideas come out of self-containment and hit a general audience, the rate of acceleration they undergo usually rips right through the fabric of the band.

This might explain the regression in terms of style. They’re still pulling pretty heavily from Bob and the Beatles, splitting the contemporary difference between the Smith Westerns and the Walkmen, but this time without that cocksucker blues swagger that made everything feel so go-for-broke. And it’s not just the sound that’s lost the edge, but the message, too. Gone are the aggressive and provocative challenges like "Heard You Want to Beat Me Up" and "No Way For a Slave to Behave." Whereas they used to literally take shots at their forbearers with the likes of "Should Have Shot Paul," we now get stylistic paint-by-number melodies on the defanged "Between Us."

There is an other hand, though, which comes out from time to time to call into question the intentions of this new refinement. Even in the middle of the one or two truly insipid songs here, they’re taking potshots at the genre. For example, Sambol croons, "I’m going back to Africa" in the lazy luau of "A Walk on the Beach." Are these conscious shots fired in today’s Afropop wars, or just more naive wanderlusts? It’s hard to tell, which is what makes these songs work even as the band has become more self-conscious. It certainly forces a slight reappraisal of “Da Da,” which at first sounds like another Real Estate vacation track, but with the line “sex is like laughter” foreshadowing the wickedly funny “Laugh at Sex, Not Her.” The title track takes on a much more sardonic tone in light of this. Maybe it really is a swindle. The errant saxophone seems to indicate as much.

Their greatest undoing comes from slouching toward completion. So much of their debut worked because it lacked finish. The holes in the record were where the charm oozed most freely. But now that those have been filled in by pedal steel and organ, many of the songs shine with an unoriginal veneer. They’re among the best recent Dylan copycats, especially on “Friday in Paris,” but maybe it’s time we stop taking Highway 61 Revisited‘s title too seriously. Sticking to the raw power burnouts on “Night Might” still make for the most memorable songs. Even the more simple, skeletal arrangements on the acoustic “Dare I Say” stay with you. Not that surprising, really, considering the core of both songs is bare and easily accessible, without any obscuring flourishes.

That’s a lot of bloviating over what’s ostensibly another Austin garage record. The bottom line is this: while the amateur magic of their first record is gone, I wouldn’t count the Strange Boys out just yet. Or, as Sambol puts it in the last line of the album opener, “Tonight’s dinner is tomorrow’s shit / so enjoy it before it stinks.”

By Evan Hanlon

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