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The Bitters - East General

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Artist: The Bitters

Album: East General

Label: Mexican Summer

Review date: May. 21, 2010


The Bitters - "Travelin' Girl" (East General)


The Bitters make a movements towards real ugly on East General, but it’s kind of half-assed. Using the same cover image as Orcustus definitely smells like a statement, but what exactly is it saying? The unfortunate image and the Norwegian black metal associated with it make for good conversation starters, but they’re red herrings. At their very worst, the Bitters approach the kind of showman’s horror of The Cramps. And at their best, they’re just another proficient Mexican Summer band. The difference between these two poles isn’t huge as they’re never really bright and sunny. When the blown out low-end Link Wrayisms of “Bitters Bust” become too much, they swing pretty easily into the pure pop of “Travelin’ Girl.” But none of it really seems to align itself with the shock and awe tactics that the cover tries for.

A better invocation than Orcustus would probably have been either Incesticide or In Utero. The art’s in the same ballpark, and the sounds definitely come from the same swamp. But where Nirvana was started to move towards the middle and an Unplugged album, the Bitters are starting from the middle and trying to work their way out. Which is understandable. It’s been hard topping “Warrior,” the first song off their first EP, a gorgeous, melancholic song that enthralled a whole lot of people last year. They need to find an angle as the scenes continues to fill up. Going from safe to dangerous takes a lot more work, however, and there’s just not enough of it.

They’re getting there, though. You definitely can find some real menace here. The default mode is shambles, but the Bitters are best in blitzkrieg. Take “Wild Beast.” On the whole, it’s kind of anemic and amateurish. There’s a lot of rough edges and seams that get in the way of some of the good ideas. The song almost duds out (a real problem as an album opener), until they take a really dark turn at the hook. Guitar and drum get in the same gear and become a lot smoother and scarier before dissolving into the teen spirit of “Nurtured Disease.” It saves the song, and possibly the record, because it’s enough to keep you around.

The game then becomes picking through even the most middling songs for these little thrills. And they’re there. Most of the tracks overshoot the three-minute pop rule just a little bit, keeping them from every becoming proper hit status. The good news is that the excess is often where you can find the gold. Somewhere along the line they figured out they were pretty damn good at writing a good bridge. I may have said that “Travelin’ Girl” was the pop exemplar track on East General, but once they hit the bridge about two-third of the way through things go Sabbath really quick. That subversion of the accessible trope comes in handy on a couple songs, including “Nails in the Coffin.” The boy/girl interplay between Aerin Fogel and Ben Cook is pretty cute over a Chuck Berry riff at first. Then they drag it down into a much more primal zone bordering on Zola Jesus territory.

Those movements help the Bitters own these songs much more than when they’re simply calling plays from other people’s books. They know their music straddles a couple marginally differentiated rock fans, and sometimes they make obvious overtures to them. These are generally not that successful. "No Anchor" goes after the beach kids, but there’s no way the Best Coasters are going to fall for this. Similarly, "Beggar" tries for the introspective dreams in the bedroom to pretty mediocre effect. It’d be easy to blame this on the A&R dude hanging out in the studio and running down the checklist of different teenybopper demographics to target. Except it’s 2010, and decisions on what to rehash are increasingly being made in home studio lofts. They’ve got to take full responsibility for when the melody falls short.

Which may be the final word on all of this: East General time and time again falls just short of pushing into whatever it’s going for, whether it’s ugliness or the critically favored indie rock sound du jour. Before this album, “Warrior” and the original “East” single were louder and clearer in their melancholy than the rest of their Captured Tracks contemporaries. There was beauty mixed into the bluntness. But that moment where earnestness was something refreshing has passed. The Bitters now tries to emphasize the foreboding that was already there, filling in the holes left by the more sonorous elements with grafted styles from other bedroom projects. But they are stretched too thin to really cover up the feelings that are still there. This is a weakness when the only thing revealed is a void of ideas. But sometimes there’s a pretty gorgeous and unexpected mistake that pushes through. Those are the parts that can actually make the hair on your arms stand on end.

By Evan Hanlon

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