ere is a case where a band must ask itself what matters more: getting the point of the sound across, or getting the sound across. Ohio's Richard Flemming has chosen the former. This debut makes no airs of atmosphere or whatever substance is derived from a studio. Instead the friendly, sometimes emotional tribute to grunge is a live performance recorded onto a disc, which most of us know can turn an exceptional album into sludge (you know, the elements of a sound before it is distilled into its useful and useless components). Can mixing fix this? Listen to the Dirty Projectors' Rise Above and you'll have your answer. In that case, a talented Grizzly Bear could do nothing to stop the songs from sounding like a live show sapped of the energy usually provided by the physical presence of an audience. It's the same here. Lead vocalist Hank Whitaker has a decent voice, somewhere between Britt Daniel and Damon Albarn, but the only showing off permitted is by instruments that need little help from the engineering department: the acoustic guitar, and the human voice (sort of).
Then, the critic must ask the question whether the engineering—nay, the money to polish off the rust—is necessary for this band's sound or concept, let alone the quality of either. With influences ranging from Cash to Cuomo, RF doesn't necessarily need the polish. "Everything You Want," with a typical '50s bass line from the acoustic guitar, later writ large by the Beatles and others, wants little to do with the indie cheer of groups like Oh No! Oh My!, who've made some bang for their homespun buck. Handclaps, supportive Ringoish drums, and raspy duder one-liners like, "There's more to love than I'm feeling" make this an unmistakable debut by an exceedingly young bar band with far too little presence at the mic to call themselves by one person's name, but too little of anything original going on in the background to give themselves a name that actually speaks to their physical number.
Occasionally we get a sense from the band that they're not in the 21st century for nothing: "First Sign" twinkles with spacey U2 electric bits and feathery vocals, but the whole thing goes flat when the backup drops out to let the vocals take over, and the god-awful electric guitar drills a hole in our heads to convey that some proverbial end is nigh. With this kind of music it's never quite clear what the end signifies (compare to Funeral), but the pleasantly telephonic riff at the very end of the track is another case of a band perhaps failing to know what of their material is strongest.
That said, it’s a luxury to hear how un-2007 this band is. The peaceful railway journey of "Sleeping" has delicate wails in the background, a kind of purring acoustic riff, and decorations of electronics, but it lacks the fast-paced goofiness of some recent homemade indie rock albums using the same instrumental formula. Similarly, "The Witch" is a sexy, and of course vastly inferior, Hendrix tribute, and slouches its breakup swansong with the sagacious stoner enthusiasm of Jon Butler. It's nice, but it could really use an upgrade. I'm sure it would sound excellent played live, where animation and booze (the latter obviously begets the former) would hike the tempo up just a couple of notches. It's awkwardly obvious that the songs were recorded during starkly different sets, with different equipment and in different locales. Apparently it was all done at a farm in West Virginia—I give that location, then, the credit of sounding like several different places at once. At the very least the circumstances of "Across the Scene" render it pretty lovely in a glaringly Buckley-at-Sine way, but this is a welcome addition to tributes of other '90s ideas that haven't held out so well. They can't resist throwing a few gnarly progressions into this song, but they don't get as colorful or passionate as Buckley. Fix the thunderous mess of layers, and some of them—and their resulting tracks—could have a sizeable audience. Look what happened to the Hold Steady!