The Living Things saga involves uncompromising musicians, shock-and-awe live performances, multiple flip-flopping of major labels (three), ownership battles over songs, delayed release dates and, as expected, a shit ton of gratuitous hype.
I couldn’t care less about any of this mess-we’ve heard and seen it all before. Rather, Living Things first piqued my interest when I learned the band members were raised in Maryland Heights, an urban-sprawlish suburb of St. Louis, the docile city I called home for nearly eighteen years. The band, composed of three brothers (Lillian, Eve and Bosh Berlin) and a friend (Cory Becker), has relocated to Los Angeles and makes a not-so-subtle habit of badmouthing my beloved Lou.
As much as I’d like to, it would be juvenile to hold that against the Berlin brothers (and friend). In fact, the more I heard about this band-hype, hate, gossip, whatever-the more I hoped I would avoid the seemingly inevitable gag reflex its debut, Ahead of the Lions, was sure to trigger. Something about the volatile quartet possessed an underdog rootability that was only squashed when vague image I had in my mind of Living Things was replaced with actual music.
Instead of a bold statement from a band of riotous gutter punks determined they can change the world with their brand of rock, Ahead of the Lions is pure press-a-button-out-comes-album radio pap. The record’s production shines over like it’s wrapped in a plastic bag, so much so that it’s nearly impossible to find the tracks Steve Albini had a hand in recording (there are several). Even heavier moments such as “Monsters of Man” sound out-of-place and uncomfortable. Ahead of the Lions glows with a lifeless sheen that, along with vocalist/ringleader Lillian Berlin’s done-before grunge-era murmur (choice moment of mediocrity: “Keep It ‘Til You Fold” and “New Year”) is so distractingly synthetic that it’s difficult to find merit amidst the heavily processed garbage.
Much of the pre-release hubbub about Living Things centered on the band’s talkin’-revolution-style politics, which bombarded red-state America with a live-show bag of shock value tricks that included politician masks and strap-ons. But where’s the spirit on Ahead of the Lions? Where’s the desire to burn down the establishment and piss on the ashes? As Lillian Berlin’s occasionally laughable verses (see the pointlessly scattered opening verse of “Bombs Below” or the empty narrative of “Bom Bom Bom”) spew forth like a high school student with a hard-on for Howard Zinn, this record plays so non-intrusively smooth that any statements the Berlins are struggling to make become null. Expectations are a bitch, huh?