This review originally appeared in Issue 05 of Lamplighter Magazine in Fall 2015 and subsequently on LamplighterNJ.com in June 2016
Following up a great record is a difficult affair. If you experiment with a new sound, you’ve changed too much and abandoned your core audience. If you stay true to the sound that your fans grew to love, you’ve become a one-trick pony. Really, anything less than a masterpiece is often considered a failure as far as sophomore albums go. It could even be argued that it’s wiser to hang up the gloves after that first well-received album than to submit to the inevitable criticism of a sophomore effort, though Wayne Gretzky might disagree with the sentiment. Well, after a record like 2012’s No Fate But What We Make, which was a refreshing blend of garage punk and post-hardcore in an otherwise stale crowd of loud music, Cicada Radio are clearly playing with a handicap. Crime Waves, a six-track EP and their second album under Killing Horse Records, was released in December of 2014, and the comparisons began.
While both records share that muffled-band-playing-from-the-back-of-a-crowded-bar quality, there is a distinct difference in tone. No Fate But What We Make was riff-based and dynamic, with an energetic drive, yet Crime Waves begins to delve into an almost shoe-gazing style of steady chords, crunchy distortion, and distant vocals. On the opening track, “Carcosa,” after a powerful musical introduction reminiscent of the better moments of Balance and Composure’s The Things We Think We’re Missing, vocalist Pat Keefe enters the record singing almost indiscernibly, as if a foot or so too far away from the microphone. Not a bad technique to shake a song up during the intro or the bridge, but the entire song continues in this vocal style, and eventually the majority of the album. The intent may have been to make the listener feel like they are listening to the band at a live show, but the effect is that the listener actually feels like they are listening to the band at a live show, struggling to make out the words being sung.
This is not to say that Crime Waves is without merit. The Cicada Radio roster features no weak links. Every position is filled by talented musicians, and when their hand-me-down distortion pedal sound works, it really works. “Carcosa” is followed by “The Patriot,” which is a bit more enunciated and decidedly more dynamic, with an upbeat grunge. “Teleprompter dreams are just some words up on the screen/ I can’t believe in all the lies that you tell me,” Keefe sings, the first lines of a commentary on America’s television-obsessed culture. However, “Funeral” is not as socially aware, featuring one minute and 42 seconds of the repeated lyric: “I don’t wanna die at a fucking funeral.” It’s hard to fault such a short song for simplicity, but this is a track that clearly plays better live than it does in the middle of a six-song record.
“Tomorrow” returns to the cheerful tone of “The Patriot,” or at least as cheerful as a garage punk band is willing to get. And while the vocals are slightly more present in this track, the instrumental mix doesn’t quite hit like it should, failing to create enough separation between high and low energy moments in the song. The vocal clarity is short-lived before the album’s title track slips back into indistinguishable croning. This misstep is unfortunate, because “Crime Waves” boasts the record’s most powerful instrumental score, musically picking up where “Carcosa” left off with even more intensity.
But whatever fumbles Cicada Radio make earlier in the record, the kinks are all worked out by the album’s closing track, “Mercenaries.” The track opens with the haunting stanza: “It gets harder just to tell / If you really are yourself/ You don’t look in the mirror/ These days, I don’t either/ ‘Cause when I do, I see somebody else.” After a satisfying build-up and a resonating lead melody, the song ends on crisp guitars, steady piano chords, and chilling harmonies, garnished by a vocal sample which, in the true spirit of the record, can’t really be understood. Regardless, the composition is sonically effective, making the back cover of a 20-minute record feel like the conclusion of a musical epic.
In the end, it’s the production choices that hold this otherwise well-written record back. When songs build up, as “Tomorrow” does, the expectation is that the dull and muted guitar tones will give way to something crisper and harder hitting at the breakdown, but the tone remains. Consequently, the record begins to drown underneath its own perpetual crunch, and the distant vocals quickly begin to lose their shine. Listeners will likely grow tired of waiting for the album’s softer moments in order to discern the lyrics—which is a shame, as the record truly starts to redeem itself by the time “Crime Waves” and “Mercenaries” start spinning. Though it may not be able to compete with No Fate But What We Make as a whole, there are enough gems to be salvaged from this release to warrant the short playing time.