Album review: The Common Men – Let It Burn (2011)

It can be difficult for a band to shake the shadow of their influences. In the case of Sacramento’s The Common Men, whose fascination with early 80s Great Britain has hardly been subtle, this has become a life or death scenario. The post-punk revival of the 00’s has fizzled out, leaving Interpol uninspired, The Killers (fortunately) without much radio play, and fewer reviews unfairly comparing new indie rock artists to Joy Division. Some inner-city bar bands may choose to drop their white collars and reverb units on the spot to tackle whatever the next fad is, but for The Common Men, a more mature and artistic path lay before them.
To understand what’s happening here, you should get into the head of band leader/guitarist/singer Kevin Ian, who only jumped on this trend because he sincerely loved it. Here you have a man that spends thousands of dollars trying to perfect his guitar tone, but deliberately applies a lo-fi production to his records. He compulsively deletes his back catalog, then revives it. His fascination with horror movies weighs in on his creative output as much as music. He has more chops than most local flashy metalheads, and deliberately buries them. Rock and roll is a mental struggle here, and with the band’s latest and best album Let It Burn, he thrusts the full force of his personality into the music, and if there were a time for the band to break through, it’s now.
Rather than jumping ship or hopelessly remaining stationary, Let It Burn finds The Common Men maturing into its own entity from the platform they started on. Noise tangents, progressive buildups, and dance floor mayhem form a dark, winding rock-and-roll monster that manages to be cohesive as an album, but clearly defined from track to track. The album’s opener, “Vital Signs”, drops the record’s strongest hook right off the bat, and knows exactly how hard to milk it. Being sparse with the vocals, it allows the delay soaked guitars to dominate. This is a recurring theme throughout the record, as it demonstrates some of the fiercest delay driven hooks the world has heard since U2 traded rock-and-roll in for activism and self-importance. These guitar heroics are quickly set aside for “Hanged Men”, which starts off with jagged, twin guitar chord banging that in all of its gothic nature, demands the audience keep moving.
Bassist Joshua Sims appears with his usual Simon Gallup-isms, keeping the genre-piece intact. The major boost to the rhythm section, however, is that this is the first Common Men record to feature Kimberli Aparicio on drums, who has been a member of the band for 2 years now, and has a defining sound that works well here. Sacramento punk rock veterans may remember her from Butch Vs Femme, where her oddly tuned kit and tom heavy approach created a volatile hypnosis for the 2-piece. Backing her brother Kevin, who is more melodically inclined than BvF’s howling punk rock approach, enables her to show a wider array of diversity from the subtle points to the ferocious goth rock the band occasionally dives into. From her forward blasting on “Rumblemaker” to the tribal overtones of “The Headshrinker’s Ritual”, she helps make the band sound the heaviest they ever have, and that’s a good thing.
From L to R: Joshua Sims (bass), Kevin Ian (guitar, vocals), Kimberli Aparicio (drums)
I want to take a minute to address the album’s major ballad, “Wendigo”. To get to the point, this is easily the most beautiful song the band has ever released, and also its greatest departure. Lacking the post-punk stereotype almost entirely, the group freely explores brit-pop with overtones of Bruce Springsteen, starting out the first half as a patient ballad, and then traversing up toward its nearly 9 minute mark. The lead guitar is thoughtful and melodic, supporting a softer vocal approach compared to the rest of the record. As it begins its second half, it slowly scales through variations on a theme, pulling the listener along with the current. After reaching the climax, it gently pulls the listener back down with more guitar melodies, echo, and lighter handed rhythm. Clearly offset from the rest of the album’s darker tone, it doesn’t feel out of place; it just seems like another piece of a grander experience that wouldn’t work in one dimension. Unfortunately, the doomy drop off into “Impulsion” is a bit strange, and makes it seem like this should have been the album’s closer.
The record’s not short on rockers either. Aside from “Vital Signs”, “Panic” is get-on-the-freeway-and-speed music, “Search Party” kicks the door down, and “Impulsion” allows Ian to fully immerse in his new found love of noise and guitar mistreatment.
Production is clearly better than on the band’s previous record, Hearsay. Still obsessively self-producing, Ian has a stronger grasp on what gives the band its sound. Unfortunately, the vocals get a little pushed out. It would be an obvious stylistic decision to place in some plate reverb and tube-pre overdrive here, but instead we more or less have the telephone-voice dominating the record. It’s a fun effect when used sparingly, but it takes away from songs like “Wendigo” and “Vital Signs”, that could have benefited from a cleaner sound in the mix. Other than that, despite its self-glorifying lo-fidelity, it’s still easy to pick out what the bass, drums and guitar are doing at all times without too much effort.
I like this album. I feel the band has really managed to translate the fun effect of their live show to disc. In scaling back their goth-rock/post-punk tendencies without altogether eliminating them, the group has created a more well rounded set of jangly guitar rock that is destined for a larger audience, and also offers more sustenance. The band releases the album online tomorrow (August 30th), and will be appearing at Kimo’s in San Francisco on September 8th with physical copies on hand. You can listen to “Vital Signs” below.

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