Release Date: Jan 22, 13
Are we on the verge of a mid-nineties alt-rock revival and nobody told me? Because Badwater, the third album from Chicago’s Speck Mountain, feels like it belongs more in the soundtrack of a season 2 episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer than in 2013’s diverse sonic landscape. That’s not a knock on Speck Mountain or Badwater as an album – although, as I’ll get to in a moment, I’m rather lukewarm on this record – but it is, in my mind, the most immediately jarring thing about Speck Mountain’s sound. The duo’s fondness for Isaac Brockian warbly guitar lines, vaguely grunge-tinged chord changes, and singer Marie-Claire Balabanian’s vocal style that, for some inexplicable reason, brings Garbage’s Shirley Manson to mind for the first time in about a decade or so, all combine to take me back to junior high days watching 120 Minutes and wishing they’d play some goddamned Bosstones. All of this is particularly confusing given that Speck Mountain’s press often describes it as 70s style psychedelia or, more perplexingly, as “space rock.” I’ve heard Space Rock, folks, and Speck Mountain is not space rock.
What is Badwater then? To put it succinctly, it is a capably written collection of atmospheric songs that have trouble distinguishing themselves from each other. Balabian and partner Karl Briedrick are clearly polished musicians that have established with this record a unique place in the sonic landscape, and are intent on settling in and fully exploring the parameters of their sparse and reverb-soaked environs. But while Badwater exudes confidence and sure-handedness, it does so at the expense of risk-taking. These aren’t headstrong, overconfident twentysomethings looking to become the biggest band in the world; it has an attitude and feel akin to an American Analog Set record, announcing from opener “Caught Up” through closer “Watch the Storm” that this is what they do, and if you’re not in from moment one, that’s fine, thanks for stopping by.
The result is an album pleasant enough to listen to, but ultimately incredibly unmemorable. You won’t find any of these songs stuck in your head a week after listening. In fact, in the week I’ve had the album in heavy rotation, I’d be hard pressed to differentiate between any of these songs without watching iTunes like a hawk. There are no standouts, there are no missteps; there is only the sound. It is the ultimate in relaxed atmospherics, the perfect low-volume soundtrack to a bunch of friends sitting around on couches drinking beers and talking. If that sounds like a backhanded compliment, so be it. I spent every moment of listening to Badwater wishing it would just go somewhere. There is absolutely something to be said for establishing your sound and staying in your lane; and maybe I’m simply irritated by how frequently Badwater steers into an indie-coffee-shop-open-mic-night feel. But there is the inescapable feeling that musicians and songwriters as competent as Balabian and Briedrick clearly are should be capable of more. As such, Badwater can’t help but seem a disappointment, a safe effort that simply underwhelms.