FIVE YEARS ago, the Damnwells were a band oozing potential. Back then, people were willing to forgive their generic sound and suboptimal metaphors, including Epic Records, which undertook what proved to be the impossible task of all but surgically removing the latent musical fungi that kept the band from flourishing. But signs of life remained. After getting canned by the recording behemoth, the Damnwells finished up their sophomore effort on Zoe/Rounder Records. People magazine tried to flip them a little publicity with a celebrity sighting at one of their shows on the West Coast; someone even had enough wisdom to recognize the soundtrack quality of their tunes, prompting a five-track deal for the movie Chaos Theory in 2007. But potential remains only if a band doesn’t have to the good sense to nurture it into something more, and the Damnwells’ 2009 release One Last Century (available free here) hardly even shows signs of coddling.
The root of the problem seems to have much to do with frontman Alex Dezen’s refusal to pay attention to the industry around him. Songs like “Bastard of Midnight” and “55 Pictures,” which channel the Wallflowers mixed with Gin Blossoms, would have been great earlier this decade as pop-grunge faded quietly into an all-but-glorious sunset and fans of rock n’ roll were left longing for something that didn’t require a dance routine for the stage show. Nine years later, however, the sound is either fleeting nostalgia or mental molestation. If the bands that enjoyed success couldn’t claw their way out of alternative music’s universal self-destruction, then there can’t be any realistic hope in the Damnwells’ mediocre and untimely contribution to an already-defunct genre.
But genre-confusion isn’t the only hindrance. Dezen’s writing also exhibits glaring flaws. Lyrics like, “Somewhere in between something and nothing is everything,” are great if you have a penchant for clove cigarettes and beatnik coffee shops, but there’s little profundity in it for anyone over the age of seventeen. The real tragedy, though, is that many of Dezen’s lyrics actually aren’t bad—some, in fact, are quite beautiful. But for every few lyrical gold stars Dezen earns, he follows up with flagrant demerits. Take, “Closer than We Are”: immediately following the poetic woo of, “Some of these days are longer than the lonely distance that’s between them,” the listener is subjected to the elementary illusion of cleverness in the chorus line, “There are two seats at the bar for Mr. and Mrs. My-Last-Name.” As an isolated incident, this might be forgivable, but out on the weak limb of refrain—and far from the album’s only demonstration of such incongruence—Dezen ought to have known that the fragile bough would break.
The band’s tragedy runs even deeper: “I have never worked so hard or put so much of myself into a collection of recorded songs,” Dezen says on the band’s website. Could it be the potential that countless fans and reviewers have been hearing over the years will never mature into something more palatable? Is this really as good as it gets?
Despite the dull track record, the answer may still be no. There is one single glimmer of hope on One Last Century: the album’s opening song, “Soundtrack.” The only tune under three minutes, “Soundtrack” recalls an Elliott-Smith-style folk ballad with light changes between majors, minors, and minor-sevenths and it starts with the simplicity of acoustic guitars and close reverb. While the opening sound isn’t entirely foreign to the Damnwells, they rarely demonstrate that kind of attention-getting dynamic intuition. As Dezen delivers the only full set of adult lyrics on the album the music slowly, almost eerily, creeps in underneath, beginning with a subtle bass before opening up to a melancholy string drone which finally leads into the more harmonic bridge. But they even failed to polish this stone to perfection, making the poor choices to leave rhythmic space sans any instrumental feature between the bridge vocals and the refrain, and forcing a repeat of the chorus at the song’s conclusion. Ironically, the tune could succeed in the context of a romantic drama, but only in one with an unhappy, unsatisfying ending.
Ultimately, Dezen needs to decide what sort of band the Damnwells are. If he wants to embrace the inconsistency of a rotating lineup while playing Mr. Nice Guy during the recession and giving out his music for free, then he needs to write songs that inspire people who’ve already taken their SATs. If he wants the band to keep playing major gigs with notable acts, then he needs to write at least one show-stealing radio single instead of infusing every tune with only hints of marketability oppressed under cries for production. And if the Damnwells want to continue having a musical career at all, they need to release something that can find a home outside of keg parties and soundtracks to uninspired romantic films. Until any of that happens, though, we can be thankful for one thing: at least the band was smart enough not to alienate what fan base they have left by asking them to pay more than what the album turns out to be worth.
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