The Bronx have always represented a sort of ideal situation, a successful combination of hardcore, hard rock, and unabashed pop hookery. On each of the Los Angeles band’s four self-titled albums, they never spin into saccharine or maudlin territory, keeping the volume loud and Matt Caughthran’s vocal cords consistently shredded. If there was any justice in the world, they would be completely dominating modern rock radio instead of continuing to absolutely tear things up on a more underground level. So, if The Bronx IV more or less preserves the cocky swagger of their first three efforts, why isn’t that number up top higher?
Well, for the first time on record, The Bronx actually sound a bit tired. Which is surprising, when one considers the time off between III and now, spent continuing tour under their Mariachi El Bronx moniker/genre experiment. Most of the songs on IV hover around the same middle tempo and volume, with “Along For The Ride” and “Pilot Light” sharing near-identical later period Foo Fighters start-stop riff patterns. Even more troubling is what the years have apparently done to Caughthran’s voice. Seemingly never one to hold back live or on record, it’s curdled into a higher-pitched, mealy-mouthed mewl as opposed to the deranged bellow that led the band’s accelerator-mashing charge on earlier albums. Caughthran’s screeching becomes a liability, with some parts of the album seeming interminable due to his relentless, strained, single note hammering sessions. IV is an album that does nothing more than take tentative steps around a central spot. When it does make a sudden lunge, as it does on the guitar and vocal duet “Life Less Ordinary,” or the strange “My Name Is Jonas” homage “Torches” it falls square on its face. The Bronx were a band that seemed undefeatable around the time of II. Too often on IV, it’s the sound of a band confronting the reality that they can’t hit as hard as they used to.
Despite all of these problems that come so close to completely derailing the album, their always expert sense of craftsmanship saves them once again. It’s no wonder they found themselves signed by a major label a mere 12 shows into their existence: the choruses here stick like they always have. Simple or familiar phrases repeatedly shouted, at maximum volume for maximum impact. Combine this with the moments where the band shakes itself out of its mid-tempo funk, as on the completely irresistible bounce of “Ribcage,” the Torche-like bomb dropping chorus of “Valley Heat,” or the taunting guitars of opener “The Unholy Hand,” and you’re left with a chunk of songs that saves the whole thing.
Usually, by the fourth album, bands of the non-willfully-experimental type have grown comfortable with their sound. Yet, the Bronx of IV is not a complacent one, shaking out the cobwebs of inactivity as opposed to settling into a groove. Their sheer talent as songwriters might find them snapping back to vicious form after this slump, but if this is the sound of a band beginning to skid inexorably downhill, it can at least be guaranteed that their decline will be very loud, and memorable despite its flaws.