Raw Like Sushi: Desert City Soundtrack turn it up to 11 in their live performances, while their studio album shows more nuance.
A Little Bit Softer Now
Desert City Soundtrack grow up and turn it down
By Sara Bir
Let us now praise the time-honored death album. Such well-traversed territory is the death album--almost nearly as much as the breakup album--that any band willing to face down the Grim Reaper has to likewise face Will Oldham, Elliott Smith, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Johnny Cash, Warren Zevon, and a host of other experts on the inevitable expiration of our earthbound selves. In capable hands, death albums can be cathartic masterpieces; in lesser hands, you have AFI.
Based on just the title alone, it's not too hard to figure out that Funeral Car is Desert City Soundtrack's death album, and they tackle the prickly mess of mortality with such feverishness that the beautifully bleak end product makes you sigh wistfully for past misery, like, "Hey, I remember when I felt like shit." When it came out in October during weeks of happy, sun-kissed late-summer weather, Funeral Car was a good album. Cut ahead a few months to the blah of early winter--darkness at 5pm as bone-chilling rain pours down mercilessly--and Funeral Car is a great album, worthy enough to hold court with its skull-faced predecessors.
Over the past four years, as the band relocated from Santa Rosa to Portland and lost and regained a number of drummers and bassists, one constant has been Desert City Soundtrack's intensely ear-splitting live shows. I recall seeing a still-new Desert City Soundtrack play in the lobby of the Phoenix Theatre circa spring 2000 and liking them because they were noisy and screamed a lot and were the kind of loud that makes you cherish your earplugs. Nearly four years later, Desert City Soundtrack is still just as loud live; energy's there in spades, but nuances get pulverized between muddy layers of bloated volume.
Which is not to every critic's taste, particularly because Desert City Soundtrack is surely capable of delivering meeker songs in the studio. Once they get onstage, this mutant rock gene seems to take over and push everything up to Spinal Tap volume for music that, at its heart, has more in common with the velvet dirges of Black Heart Procession.
Keyboardist Cory Gray's piano parts tend to be Desert City Soundtrack's most defining feature, the melodic counterpart to guitarist and vocalist Matt Carrillo's thoughtful and brutally sentimental lyrics, both of which impart to Funeral Car its most evocative moments.
Digging not so deeply into Sonoma County underground music lore, one will unearth in Desert City's lineup several core members of the locally lamented Edaline (Carrillo and bassist Mike Casanova), a band that was emo before emo was a bad word (if it is indeed a word at all). Desert City Soundtrack has carried on their tradition of crafting songs about being angry about being sad, but on Funeral Car they thankfully have more up their sleeves than that trusty but hackneyed emo-y trick of playing really loud and then suddenly getting really quiet. The extreme-dynamic-maneuver they pull repeatedly but selectively, as in "Something about a Ghost," a song that draws its strength as much from Gray's mellow underscoring of trumpet as Carrillo's shifting from plaintive balladeer to raw-throated wailing maniac. All the while, Funeral Car's biggest moments owe a lot to Caitlin Love's astoundingly powerful arena-rock drumming.
As for the discerning music fan, to best experience the many moods of Desert City Soundtrack, see them live, where you can purchase Funeral Car directly from the band at the merchandise table. And don't forget your earplugs.
Desert City Soundtrack will perform with the Rum Diary and the New Usual on Friday, Dec. 12, at the Forestville Club. The show starts at 9pm. 6250 Front St., Forestville. 707.887.2594.
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From the December 11-17, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.