Unlike the Beatles, who in 1966 vanished from the live stage to focus on perfecting their studio stride, bands today — Radiohead, Wilco — are hugging studio knobs and filling liner notes with big-name production credits without sacrificing their live show. Whether it’s by reinterpreting impossible-to-reproduce songs in a live setting or by using technology to replicate studio intricacies as accurately as possible, being a “studio band” is no longer a trade-off for an intense show.
Someone should tell that to Lake Trout, a studio-savvy Baltimore-based five-piece whose live show is like an open-mike night at a Muse fan-club meeting. When the band performed at New York’s bakery/record store/bar/venue Cake Shop earlier this summer, the place was filled with the mass of fans you’d expect from a band that’s been puttering around the East Coast for more than seven years. Fans knew the words and seemed to love every second. But other than being a fairly amateurish imitation of Radiohead’s followers, the songs offered nothing to demand attention from a new listener like me.
Lake Trout’s third studio album, Not Them, You, delivers the same songs I heard and disliked at the Cake Shop a few months ago, now encased in studio wizardry and attention to recording details that caused a reversal of the band-panning I was apt to do in the weeks following the show.
With the help of producers Tony Doogan (Mogwai, Delgados) and David Fridmann (the Flaming Lips, Sleater-Kinney), Lake Trout, which has in the past been lumped in with contemporary “jam bands” (although there’s no evidence of that here), concocts an album that bears the unmistakable stamp of a “studio record.” From the pummeling rhythm-section groove of opener “Shiny Wrapper” to vocalist Woody Ranere’s sweeping falsetto and the orchestral crescendos on “King,” the band’s energy works alongside unusual arrangements and crisply recorded instruments (notice the guitar sound — Loveless, anyone? — on “Now We Know” or the unbelievably pure snare on the piano-meandering title track). “Have You Ever” and “Peel” explode in a controlled-guitar attack and are countered with the more restrained and subtle delicacy of “Honey” or the short bit-o’-Eno interlude “I.”
But Not Them, You comes with quite a few clunkers as well. With its fairly simple construction, “Forward March” stands out so much from the rest of the album that it ruins the otherwise carefree song. The bulk of “If I Can” is wasted thanks to an obnoxiously sparse and drawn-out intro, and the spacey cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man,” a giant step away from the album’s direction, left me puzzled.
Considering how awful Lake Trout was live at the Cake Shop (maybe it was just a bad show), Not Them, You, even with its dull moments, is an impressive turnaround, showcasing the band’s true strength when it comes to recording raucous rock music. At least now we know what the band’s next step should be.