Over the course of three albums, Austin, TX’s Strange Boys have musically curled up into the fetal position, immersing themselves and the songs they produce in their collective influences so heavily that they have arguably become some sort of a tribute act, digging deeper and deeper into their record collections without really pushing themselves forward. Their disappearing act extends to their album artwork as well. On 2009 debut And Girls Club, the rowdy foursome is front and center on the record sleeve, everyone’s faces clearly visible. Last year’s Be Brave featured an album photo that looked like it had been taken from under water, everyone’s faces distorted and out of focus. Now, on Live Music, there’s just a bunch of cartoon faces, few of which have any discernable features. Unfortunately, this new state of visual anonymity seeps its way into at least half of the album’s tracks, rendering it as beige as the sleeve it’s contained in.
Then again, the Strange Boys have never had it easy, or made it so for their listeners. When they put out their second release (the Isn’t It Pretty To Think So 7″), they were a scrappy garage rock group signed to In The Red, a label where “scrappy garage rock group” is an element of nearly every act signed to its roster. Then, there’s the little issue of vocalist Ryan Gombal, who at times sounds like a marble-mouthed cat on the verge of a tantrum. With that description, the fact that Live Music finds them bear-hugging their R&B and country influences tightly is might send some rushing for the stop button before the first song even begins. But while the overstuffed nature of their first two albums worked against them, the expansiveness of Live Music is actually advantageous, as it takes them an entire half of the album to finally settle into a workable groove.
This point is illustrated even further by the fact that the album is literally divided in two. The first half of the album was produced by Spoon’s Jim Eno, and simply put, his style just isn’t a good fit for this band. The songs on the album’s first half come off way too clean for the gritty soul or country twang the Boys are going for, and Gombal lacks the authoritative bark and effortless cool of Britt Daniel, who is able to take charge of Eno-produced tracks. The prospect of working with an indie producer of Eno’s caliber seems to have affected the songs here as well, as they find the Boys trying really, really hard to sound soulful, as they do on “Doueh,” instead of relying on the jangly charm that appealed people to them in the first place. A line on “Omnia Boa” even goes “I’ve got feeling/I’ve got soul,” as if Gombal is trying to convince himself of such things.
Side B, on the other hand, was handled by Mike McHugh, at the same studio where Be Brave was recorded. Here, the band comes home from work, loosens its tie, and delivers. We’re given the ramshackle percussion and easy country shuffle of “My Life Beats Me,” the warm strut of “Over The River and Through The Woulds,” and the thrillingly cacophonous buildup of “Hidden Meanings, Soul Graffiti.” Suddenly, it’s almost as if Side A didn’t happen.
With the use of Eno, and the further overall sanitization of their sound, Live Music seems to be the Strange Boys’ bid for larger indie success, but in the end, they just sound confused. They know what they want, as their iron-clad grip of their influences displays, but they don’t know how they want to deliver it. Unfortunately, compromise was not the best course of action.