Listening to Live Music (as in "I Live for music" rather than "playing Live") for the first time can be a bit of a shock for some The Strange Boys hardcore fans. Started as a punk duo in 2001, thanks to their stunning debut LP and Girls Club, which only came out in 2009, Austin-based Ryan Sambol and co. then made a reputation for creating superb southern garage rock based around jangly, harsh guitars, abrasive vocals and lo-fi, violent sonorities. 2010 (almost as) beautiful follower Be Brave (QRO review) somehow started a process towards more country-ish melodies, due to heavy use of harmonica, piano and saxophone (at the end of 2009 ex-Mika Miko Jenna Thornhill-DeWitt joined Sambol brothers and Greg Enlow as saxophonist and backing vocalist, along with Mike La Franchi, who replaced founding member Matt Harmer on drums), but still you could find their trademark cutting sound in some songs such as the title track.
When The Strange Boys/Natural Child split 7" came out on Scion A/V earlier this year, the cacophonic harmonies of "America Radio" lead fans to think the upcoming album would be rebel awakening. But Live Music is nothing like that. With its plucked guitars, honky-tonk pianos and harmonica numbers, it represents a definitive departure from the sonic violence of the band’s early work and a more complete evolution towards alt-country and roots rock with a bluesy touch. The Strange Boys declared in more than an interview that new record was heavily influenced by the Grateful Dead (QRO photos) and Nashville, but it also evokes other late ‘60s-‘70s acts like The Band (especially the Music from Big Pink era), The Faces, and Rolling Stones.
Even Ryan Sambol’s vocals have changed: they are less sneering and nasal, sounding somewhat like Tom Petty (QRO album review) when calmer and like an inebriated Bob Dylan when hitting higher notes, still drawly and untamed, but warmer and more mature. What still remains is The Strange Boys’ thirst for experimentation and mixing up tones, moods and tempos.
First half of the album was recorded with Spoon’s drummer Jim Eno at Public Hi-fi studios downtown Austin, TX and it has a slightly poppier, happier vibe from the upbeat piano melodies of fantastic opener "Me and You", to super catchy "Punk’s Pajamas" (yes they still misspell tracks titles on purpose….) which has a British 2000s feel, perhaps for Sambol’s vocals oddly sounding a little Alex Turner, a little Pete Doherty (cringe!), to the moving-shaking-dancing bluesy riffs and continuous tempo changes of "Omnia Boa", and "Mama Shelter" that in spite of the joyful rhythm sings about the void left by absence ("There just had to come a time / When you would decide / To take leave / To keep alive / What you’d started long before / We ever said hi") and the pressures of a wandering lifestyle. Some tracks are more contemplative and slow like the harmonica-led "Walking Two by Two" and the ‘60s French pop influenced "You and Me", a sweet ballad, which for the subtly dramatic, ramshackle piano is somehow reminiscent of some pensive Spoon songs (QRO live review).
The only anomaly in the mix is "Doueh": with its shuffling rhythm and wa-wa pedal it feels a bit funky pop, a bit John Mayer (QRO album review) and doesn’t seem to fit the first half of the record that well.
Side two of Live Music was produced by Mike McHugh at the Distillery in Costa Mesa, CA and has a more experimental, less polished sound starting from "Saddest", which begins with another upbeat piano number but then has a surprising breakdown halfway through with electronic strings, cacophonic harmonies and humming vocals, before resuming the Faces-esque initial melody. "Over the River and Through the Woulds" is an homage to Gregg Allman’s southern rock. Then things get less interesting and a bit repetitive till the final emotional build-up of honky tonk-y "You Take Everything For Granite When You’re Stone", and the creative album closer "Opus", a surf-blues exercise with guitar caterwauling and instrumental ramblings.
If Live Music seems to lack the ingenious subtlety and cunning abrasiveness of The Strange Boys’ earlier work, it’s nonetheless filled with interesting sonic layers and intuitive harmonies that only reveal themselves after a few listens. Some tunes are really catchy and the kind you want to dance to. Still, alas it’s not and the Girls Club…
MP3 Stream: "Me and You"