November 14, 2002

Seen Better Days

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One of the most interesting disappearing acts on the recent music scene is The Wallflowers. In 1996, Jakob Dylan, Bob’s kid, brought his coarsely soothing voice to stardom by fronting The Wallflowers with their award-winning platinum debut Bringing Down The Horse. The record spawned “One Headlight” which, among other successful singles, was one of the top songs of the decade. Now they are back with their third effort, Red Letter Days. That’s right, folks, they had released a second album. 2000’s Breach went about as unnoticed as Ralph Nader’s presidential campaign. So here they are again, and the question is whether or not this band has more to offer.

From the get-go, this album moves well. Each song finds a harmonic base and most of the twelve songs push new boundaries. I’ll say from the start, there is no “One Headlight” or “6th Avenue Heartache” on this album. What’s even more frustrating is seeing a band that had a perfect formula with their original sound try so hard to reinvent themselves. This simple curse is reminiscent of listening to Weezer’s past few albums. If you are a true Weezer fan, you’ve been dying for them to release another Blue Album while they’ve been on the other side of the spectrum doing two-minute overrated pop sellouts. While The Wallflowers’ new album isn’t such a major deviation, it is quite noticeable that they are trying to be someone else. The opening song, and first released single, “When You’re On Top,” is as eclectic as a song can be, beginning with a techno beat and going into a poppy, harmonic camp sing-along. “Everybody out of the Water” and “Health and Happiness” simply try too hard for distinction. There is a nice soft shift with “Closer To You,” as violins and piano solos are accompanied by just Jakob Dylan’s voice. Dylan, like his dad, provides some insightful and poetic lyrics. The moments when Dylan sings without his band mates, like in “Closer to You,” are among some of the purest moments on the album. The songs that do capture the feel of Bringing Down The Horse, most noticeably heard on “Too Late To Quit” and “Everything I Need,” are two of the album’s highlights.

More or less, Red Letter Days is The Wallflowers experimenting with a bunch of different musical approaches. Between shifts into their old sound, light and poetic songs, in-your-face alternative rock, and movement toward pop, the album covers a lot of ground. I will commend them on a versatile effort and I admit that all of the songs sound good. But none of the dozen manage to escape the calculated sound of being simply “above average” music. I can also see the album as a whole falling into such a branding. Red Letter Days doesn’t stand out as an amazing album and doesn’t find the captivating sound that their original effort achieved, but it shows the craft that The Wallflowers possess. Is it so bad that Jakob and company might not reencounter the platinum-status that they began with? Maybe The Wallflowers’ best fitting suit is obscurity.

Archived article by Dan Cohen