Despite all the praise traditionally heaped upon bands that let their sound grow and mature over the course of their careers (and the scorn cast on those who stagnate – e.g., The Hold Steady as of late), sometimes simpler is better. On their sophomore album, duo Peter Wolf Crier take a giant step away from the simple, messy pop folk of their debut. The result, though not disastrous, is disheartening; the misses here so clearly outweigh the hits.
In what seems like a concerted effort to add atmosphere, texture, and maturity to their sound, the songs on Garden of Arms are grounded largely in their production. There’s also an almost irritatingly intentional diversity. Some tracks clearly fall into a type, and one will often sound like a replica of another. For example, “Krishnamurti” tries to bounce and snarl like The White Stripes, but falls flat, while “Hard Heart” attempts basically the same trick, only – thanks to a good melody – to moderately better success.
The worst songs on Garden of Arms are not unbearable. They’re just boring, soulless, inconsequential. “Having It Out” exemplifies this: the singing is skilled, the instrumentation pleasant, the percussion fitting, but the song’s character is somehow indistinct. Elsewhere, it seems the band is trying to make up for mediocre songs with strange choices of production or arrangement: “Cut A Hand” employs too-busy drums to compensate for a lackluster melody.
But the album is not without its successes. Opener “Right Away” is tense, nervous, and spastic, a hypnotic series of tiny explosions, and it ends leaving me wanting more. In contrast, “Beach” is limber and calm, the guitar smooth and the melody sweet. It’s a delight. “Settling It Off” bounces along with joyful swagger and soul. Unfortunately, when the album is taken as a whole, it’s hard to see the bright spots through the haze of mediocrity. Still, the talent here is clear – fingers crossed for album number three!