On last year’s …And Girls Club, the Strange Boys showed a knack for high-energy, strung-out rock 'n' roll that earned the Austin group well-deserved praise. Despite obvious musical touchstones (blues, soul, Mod-era rock), the foursome tweaked the ingredients just enough to create something new and weird. In the mid-'60s, Bob Dylan searched for “that wild, mercurial sound,” and the Strange Boys seemingly perfected it.
Yet Be Brave, their second LP for In The Red, finds the Boys moving away from that nervy jangle. If Girls Club was the sound of Saturday night (albeit a paranoid one), Be Brave is the hazy Sunday morning. Changes abound on the record. For starters, the Boys have added a girl to the club: Jenna Thornhill, formerly of Mika Miko. Thornhill was known for her demented sax solos in her previous band, and she doesn’t disappoint here. The album’s titular first single makes room for some free-jazz bleating that works well amidst the song’s party-ready R&B stomp.
The band has also added a bit of Blonde On Blonde-style folk rock to the mix. “Friday In Paris” coasts on a breezy beat while organ bubbles underneath, softening Ryan Sambol’s strangled yelp. Slow-motion soul (“Between Us”) and bluesy pop (“I See,” with xylophone complementing the harmonica) are used to add tremendous depth that they only hinted at on their previous record. Most of the record stays locked into a laconic groove (“A Walk On The Beach,” “Da Da”) with occasional forays into searing rave-ups (“Night Might”). What’s most surprising is the amount of time given to country-blues ballads, with four popping up in the back half. “Dare I Say” bops along as much as the rest of the record, but “The Unsent Letter” finds Sambol punch-drunk at the piano, banging out chords to his soulful pleadings. “All You Can Hide Inside” and “You Can’t Only Love When You Want To” are acoustic sketches highlighting Sambol’s scratchy voice. He sounds more comfortable with an entire band behind him, but these stripped-down songs lend a raw emotionality that’s interesting for a group that tries to play it so cool.
On album opener “I See,” Sambol declares “Tonight’s dinner will be tomorrow’s shit.” It’s a hell of a statement, and one that the band has taken to heart. Despite numerous accolades, fans and journalists alike are a fickle bunch, and opinion can turn in the blink of an eye. With Be Brave, the Strange Boys have made an album that expands their sound and opens up new roads for them to follow in the future. They could have retread the same musical territory, but instead they deliver a record that’s remarkable in its maturity and — most of all — its ability to be replayed again and again.
With an expanded line-up featuring Seth Densham and Jenna Thornhill of Mika Miko and Darker My Love’s Tim Presley, Texas’s Strange Boys look to ever so slightly build upon the roots-garage template they’ve constructed over the course of several singles and an excellent debut full-length on In the Red. The Boys have an uncanny ability to internalize a host of increasingly ancient (the ‘60s will turn fifty this year mind you) pop and rock sub-sub-genres and make them sound utterly vibrant in the messed up times of now. And based on the title track/first single, the new auxiliary members seem to have picked up the band’s groove quite handily. The full album is due in January from Rough Trade in the U.K. and, once again, In the Red in the States.
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