So, I guess the cliche is that reviewers pigeonhole artists — slicing and dicing music into genres, taxonomically separating organic parts into the flora and fauna of an aural biosphere. If that’s true, and I imagine there is some truth to it after all, bands like the Tenderhooks exist to make a reviewer’s job as difficult as possible.
“New Ways to Butcher English” is more than just a genre-bending exploration of various musical styles by a band that can seemingly do it all. The record is actually an emotional journey through a world where feelings can’t be expressed one way or the other. There’s a mish-mash of expression that winds its way through the tunes and transforms bits and pieces of each track into something that is more than the sum of its parts.
The vocals and arrangements are reminiscent of Blind Melon’s slacker blues sound that emerged from the grunge-crusted ’90’s. Shannon Hoon’s sickly sweet vocal style and haunting sense of melody are channeled into this record with an eerie accuracy. There’s also a certain wholesome, rootsy quality to these songs that brings to mind hometown rock from the likes of Melloncamp, or even Springsteen.
This album is hard to classify, but, at it’s heart, it’s pure pop. It’s intelligent — maybe even smart-britches — and just a little jaded. But the attitude always feels a little tongue and cheek. There’s a deep breath of optimism that floats through this collection of songs. It’s this breath that rescues the record from bitterness; it exchanges bitterness for bittersweet.
And I’m left with just the slightest whisper of melancholy; the faintest hint of hope.
My favorite track on this disc is “Heaven and Hell.” Conveniently, this song also proves my point; this song really sums up the character of the entire album.
It opens with raucous guitars and gritty, growling vocals. The lyrics smell of despair: “There is no umbilical cord to pull you through all the sadness and the pain. I think I see heaven and hell.” And the band seems to protest this state of affairs — frenetic rhythms, whiny guitars and a dirty bass line complain loudly between vocal lines. Until the last line: “Just close my eyes as I kiss you on the roof.”
Then the song opens up, like pulling the curtains on a dark room. As light pours in, everything changes. Guitars trade grit for tinkle; kick drum gives way to high-hat and splash; the bass lightens its step. And then the keyboard takes up its song, standing in for the vocals. A beautiful, light melody fills the newly-brightened space. For a moment, I’m the one kissing on a moonlit rooftop.
That’s how this album works. By setting and undercutting a mood over and over again, by refusing to let the listener settle into a genre and get comfortable in a category, this record at first jars you, then entrances you. From gritty to atmospheric and back again, these songs ultimately wrap you up and tell you a story. And, like any good story, this one hangs out on the back porch of your memory and hums you to sleep.