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The Splinters - Kick

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Artist: The Splinters

Album: Kick

Label: Double Negative

Review date: Mar. 19, 2010

There’s always something festive about bands that have a tambourine player. It’s a sign they don’t buy into the notion that everybody has to be good at something, that it’s fine to have a member who does nothing but thwack a jingling disc against one hip. It’s the Partridge Family all over again, the dude from Brian Jonestown Massacre, Bez from Happy Mondays (maracas, but same deal, really) or John Petkovic in manic Cobra Verde mode (though he also plays guitar and keyboards sometimes, to be perfectly fair). If rock is all hedonism, and maybe it is, doesn’t it make sense to have one member whose sole task is to feel it?

The Splinters, as you may have guessed, has a tambourine player. Her name is Lauren Stern. They also have two pretty good guitar players in Ashley Thomas and Caroline Partamian, and a perfectly competent drummer in Courtney Gray. Yet competence and skill are not really the point here. Joie de vivre is closer to it. Kick is, as the title suggests, sharp, punchy, sly and ephemeral. It’s pitched at maybe a slightly dumber level than these Berkeley grads are capable of, but that’s because they’re not trying. They’re having fun. They’re mashing up 1960s girl group call and response with late 1970s Raincoat jitters and 1990s alterna-girl pop. They’re slinging sharp guitars and mumbling Twitter-brief, whatever’s-going-on-in-my-head lyrics, and rocking side to side to a metronomic tambourine. “Motorcycle…Motorcycle…Motorcycle…whoa-oh-oh-oh,” goes one song’s verse (called, oddly enough, “Motorcycle”). Incisive, it’s not.

In fact, the lyrics are the main problem with this entirely enjoyable album, some of them so brainless that you have to picture a doe-eyed ingénue twirling, perhaps chewing on a lock of hair, as she comes up with them. “Sorry” which percolates along nicely on a percussive, post-punk guitar line, stops things dead with mundane lines like, “My friend said girl you gotta break a habit /I said what should I do / he suggested I stop smoking / I asked him if he was joking.” All you need is another girl injecting, “Totally,” and you’re at the food court.

That’s a shame because the songs are good. “Sea Salt Skin” has a loosely strung, jangly chill that dips over into 4AD territory, while rocker “Mysterious” reinvents that “What I Like About You” guitar riff in a raucous rave-up. The best parts, often, are the ones where the singers split off into wordless counterpart “Electricity”’s caustic guitar vamps are broken by a staccato “Wha-oh-oh…Wha-oh-oh” that is far more interesting than the song’s story line.

There is one song where the lyrics really work. That is, it tells a complete story that makes sense and draws the listener in. That’s “Oranges,” late in the album. The song describes a casual, same-sex encounter (you get the sense that this is not a regular thing for the singer) and the hostility that follows it. The language is vivid as it describes the hook-up itself, and harshly exact as it deals with the aftermath. (The recurring line is “Why don’t you just fuck off?”) It stops on a dime, too, when the singer spots her fling in the park one day. “And she was with a man,” the song ends, and rage hangs over the finish like another kind of overtone.

Kick is fun all the way through, and if they want to stay that way, the Splinters could certainly find a spot in amongst a half-dozen Slumberland bands pitched at the same level. But tambourine or no, they seem to be a band with a bit more smarts and potential than average. It’d be nice to see them work a little harder at it.

By Jennifer Kelly

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