By: Dennis Cook
There's a warming charm to The Brakes from the moment they fire it up. It happens at their shows, which practically leap into your arms and plant one on you, and it happens immediately on Tale of Two Cities (Hyena). Though a deceased pony I've whipped in print for years, it bears repeating in this instance: if popular radio were actually based on talent, sheer appeal and quality songwriting then The Brakes would already be massive. Of course, today's marketing driven mentality slants things far too heavily towards economic concerns, leaving art lying battered on the side of the highway. Luckily, The Brakes picked her up, giving her their coats and last cigarettes like decent lads should, and wooed this 12-pack of delights out of her.
Everything about them, from the massively appealing tunes to the solidity & flow of their playing to the butterscotch trip of lead singer Zach Djanikian's tongue, carries the precocious creativity of young Steve Winwood, Paul McCartney and others who rose to mainstream fame in the '60s without sacrificing sophistication in their music to do so. Recorded during a two-month joint residency in NYC and Philadelphia, Tale cherry picks the ripest fruit from the run, a successful gambit that shows off both their writing chops and live prowess not unlike Assembly of Dust's fabulous The Honest Hour.
Stupidly catchy track after track, it's the final trio – "Song of Imponderables," "Who Am I To Be" and "Sister Mary" – that cement how fundamentally good this band is. Quiet numbers today tend to still rely on bombastic bursts or pushy production to get their point across, but "Imponderables" embraces a potent hush, benefiting from their collective restraint, rising only as much as they need to on the chorus, which consistently gives me a shiver with it's simple, true spirit and delivery ("There were no stars to steer our course/ No bell to toll the hour"). "Who Am I To Be" is an incantation, a sect-less prayer that yearns in words, music and tone:
Please tell me something I don't know
Please, give me something that will grow
Who am I to be?
Tell me who am I to be
A distant lover or your family
Tell me who am I to be
A deep, fine soul rises on this cut, the eloquent guitars and burbling tom-toms capturing in mood what the lyrics suggest, a kind of interlocking intelligence that informs the entire record. The overlap of their efforts layers in pleasures that surface with repeat listens, so you'll be near powerless to stop at one spin as "Sister Mary" – a smoky grower in the vein of The Black Crowes "Seeing Things," slide swoon encircled with barbed wire – is given the neat sendoff, "I'll be just fine/ My world is filled with possibility/ You can go on, but I'll take my time." This line serves as a statement of purpose for The Brakes. They seem dedicated to the music far more than the cult of personality or dumb money chasing antics of many bands out there, especially one with this much potential mass appeal. Their obvious dedication to craft is a joy, and they've made an absolutely wonderful slab this time out.
JamBase | Philadelphia
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