In the Red
By Jhoni Jackson
Standing out as a garage-rock band is like trying to get Republicans on board for President Obama’s brand of health care reform. It’s almost futile. But despite the obstacles working against them – signing with In the Red (a label heavily immersed in the pervasive genre), titling the band beginning with “The” and the bevy of likeminded acts who’ve seemingly taken over indie – The Strange Boys haven’t gotten lost in the mix. They’re on their second full-length now, and have even landed a national tour opening for Goliath-scale indie rockers, Spoon.
In fact, the garage-rock tag could probably be ousted for this Austin, Texas quartet. Sure, they’re postured as silly youths inspired by ‘60s rock and even modern garage-rock path-clearers like The Black Lips. And yes, their sound is fuzzy and generally lo-fi. But on their sophomore release, Be Brave, The Strange Boys do well to shake up the confines of the often predictable genre they’ve been classified by.
Like Bob Dylan circa Blonde on Blonde, there’s a cautious raucousness to Be Brave. The Strange Boys have held back slightly on the fuzziness and chaos heard on their debut (And Girls Club) while keeping all of the earnest rawness that ensures an authentic sound. They’ve held firm to the “we-do-what-want” vibe that’s become standard for garage-rock bands, but the country-blues element weighs heavier this go-around.
On their MySpace, the band mentions Texas bluesman Mance Lipscomb as an influence. Who knows how long that reference has been posted, but on this album, it’s more apparent that The Strange Boys are happily paying homage to iconic musicians like Lipscomb.
“I See” opens the album in an upbeat tempo, guided by bluesy harmonica. Lead singer Ryan Sambol’s vocals are still characteristically nasally and slightly whiney, like Dylan on uppers. At first, “A Walk on the Beach” sounds like it could be just that – a breezy evening stroll offshore with a glaring, fiery sunset to light the way. But fast-paced guitar strums catch up to the promenade for a wild, jangly tune with wandering guitar gliding through it.
The title track “Be Brave” sits three songs into the album and is its most blues-fueled endeavor. The mid-tempo jam features Jenna E. Thornhill deWitt’s rowdy saxophone at its core, while Sambol pontificates about courage in the chorus. He’s echoed by wooly-sounding group vocals affirming in a shout, “You gotta be brave!”
The song’s notions about confidence are defined in the corresponding homemade-style video, where the four-piece is seen goofing off in various locations – on a scooter through a neighborhood, in a kitchen, in a poorly-lit back-alley where a mock mugging takes place and even while riding public transportation. Visual effects range from black-and-white to washed out opacity to bright, flickering psychedelic-style lights. According to The Strange Boys, embracing one’s fun-loving, rowdy nature can be fuel for bravery and self-confidence.
The album continues in the same fashion for “Friday in Paris,” where the keys resonate with a church organ’s glorified fullness. With a country twang dominating its guitar parts, “A Country Man’s Friday in Paris” would have been a more appropriate title.
Besides challenging garage-rock stereotypes and tightening up their sound altogether, another sign of The Strange Boys’ increasing maturity is the abundance of measured, leisurely songs tacked on to album’s tail-end. An introspective story of miscommunication is told on “All You Can Hide Inside.” Piano-driven and melancholy, “The Unsent Letter” ends with Sambol singing slowly, “What is there is not always what it seems.”
A depressing variety of love song, “You Can’t Only Love When You Want,” rounds out the album. It’s a minimalistic track that first warns against the blind trust that comes with finding love, then expresses self-deprecating blame for losing it.
True to form, The Strange Boys are still jokingly juvenile before the album’s somber finale. “Laugh at Sex, Not Her” tells the story of friends copulating in an adjacent room. “Well, I don’t know if they love each other for sure/But it sounds like they do,” Sambol sings.
Maybe The Strange Boys aren’t all grown-up just yet, and they may never be. Juvenile tendencies are part of garage-rock typecasting, and fun music for escapism is often the basis of worthwhile bands. But with all of Be Brave’s country-blues nuances and newfound sluggish tempos, in terms of conventional garage-rock, these guys are definitely some strange boys.