According to author Douglas Rushkoff, we’re in an “age of corporate cool-hunting and target-marketed faux rebellion.” If that’s the case, the most egregious perpetrators are those pre-faded rock T-shirts that have moved off the back racks of re-sale shops (cool) to the greener pastures of Urban Outfitters (mildly cool) and Target (decidedly uncool). Hell Train is the fourth album from Boston four-piece Soltero and is evidence that lead man Tim Howard has a conceptual understanding of what makes retro cool. Copycat acts such as Black Rebel Motorcycle Club eventually run into the same problem as DOS-based systems: Sure, it’s retro, but that doesn’t make it practical or fun. Soltero uses the legacy of the Beatles and Beach Boys as a springboard to achieve its own brand of edgy, smart pop.
The opening guitar piece from “The Prize” pays homage to the Beatles “Getting Better” and then updates it into an inspired stoner anthem. Howard has a warble-y falsetto that’s as tepid as it is filled with conviction, and he walks that line as he implores you to “keep your eye on the prize” while getting “fully-lit like a torch.” “From the Station” feels like Brian Wilson at the helm of Yo La Tengo, and Soltero revisits the Beatles on the Eastern-tinged “Ghost at the Foot of the Bed.”
For its obvious influences, Hell Train is a remarkably subtle package. Soltero has mastered the ability to meld the tender moments (soft, guitar-picked tracks bookend the album) with the occasional psychedelic freak-out (“Bleeding Hearts”). And although Howard’s voice isn’t particularly full, he shows his range by going dry and low for the ridiculously catchy Silver Jews-styled “Hands Up” and “Single Good Evening.”
But Howard’s real strength is in his song writing. In the same vein as the Jesus and Mary Chain, you’ll find yourself singing along to ultra-catchy pop songs with ultra-creepy lyrics. “Songs of the Season” could have been ripped from Uncle Remus’s “Song of the South” (Mr. Bluebird’s on my shoulder, etc.), complete with whistling and bird chirping. But that comparison doesn’t hold up to what’s really on Howard’s mind: “Songs of the season get under your skin like a tapeworm.”
Hell Train is twisted sixties pop that Soltero has accomplished on its own terms. It’s sure to level your head when you feel the impulse to scream, “They’re talking about you, bitch!” at daddy’s princess in the Beat on the Brat T-shirt.