Every album has its very own time and place. For Monroe Stahr’s debut album, it really shouldn’t be very hard to deduce the right time. The first track is, “Summer Starts Here,” and that’s about right. The acoustic guitar paints a picture pretty early on of a veranda, or a nice bar/café patio in the hot summer sun, a comfortable, but somewhat restless atmosphere that carries on throughout the album. Much like other good summer albums: Sister Hazel, Phantom Planet’s the Guest, Roman Candle’s Midnite Revue, etc. Monroe Stahr walk a fine and difficult line between sounding “easy” and free without sounding “lazy” or non-committal. That easygoing quality last through the first third of the album and it’s a nice little triptych for a summer afternoon, the acoustic and electric guitars trading center stage without struggling for the spotlight or overcoming the vocals, again, a tough line to walk. And, like any good summer band, the rhythm section keeps things at a nice pop tempo. There’s not a lot of showy drumming or bass work here, which fits the atmosphere rather well, bring in too much rhythm and people will want to get up and move around, and really, this album wants you to sit and enjoy your beer (or wine, you fancy-pants, you.)
Stahr pulls a lot of influences into this debut, at times, especially on “Mantras”, sang by Nathan, they do a very good job of channeling Joy Division into something relatively optimistic, or rather, non-nihilistic, and the effect is something like meeting a bummed, yet well-adjusted Pete Doherty and the Libertines. It’s a welcome feeling, and when the album manages to pull these moments off it shows the potential for a band of musicians that, while clearly talented, don’t seem to have much of a plan right now.
But you know what? That’s OK. Bands don’t always need a plan, and most of the best debut albums lack any real thesis (I’m thinking of “Greetings” from Asbury Park, for some reason.) Stahr is really on point when conveying that warm feeling, most evident on tracks like “Summer Starts Here,” “Nescafe Years,” and “Square One,” the last of which is likely the best song of the album. It’s the song with everyone on top of his game, and every element really works. The rhythm section gets a little bit of elbow room, the vocals get a well-deserved breaking from trying to be serious, and the guitars work together perfectly.
About those vocals. Nicky Almasy clearly has a good voice for rock ‘n’ roll, but throughout most of the album, he’s simply trying too hard to affect. And that’s a shame because not only does he have a great voice, but the forced drama and “Arctic-Monkey-ness” but also because it really clashes with the atmosphere of entirely pleasant guitar work. At times it sounds like an acoustic Alice in Chains, with a vocal trying very hard to sound rock ‘n’ roll badass and instrumentals just having a good time.
Almasy makes up for it substantially by writing pretty good lyrics. “History,” in particular has the sort of simple lyrical thesis that is really easy to get behind, and like “Square One,” it’s back by an excellent accompaniment that adds just the right amount of melody to the unforced but emotive lyrics.
There’s one song that I’ve avoided ‘til now, mostly because I simply don’t know what to make of it. “Airport,” is the kind of song that will come on at a party and everyone, at the same time goes, “is that…. That’s…. wait, no, it’s not. What is this?” Essentially, it’s an acoustic rock lobster with an almost wall-of-sound style electric guitar on top, reverbed, toned down shouting underneath, and the chorus “It was you.” That last bit sounds doesn’t really sound note worthy, but it is, mostly because the opening, “Rock Lobster” riff comes back just as Almasy sings “it was,” so my brain just keeps thinking “a rock… a rock lobster” no matter how many times I listen to it.
Finally, the last two tracks may sum up everything good and bad about this debut. “That would be a No,” has trying-too-hard written all over it, from the lyrics to the vocals and the instrumentation. It really feels like a filler “sad song,” and, more importantly, the kind of thing that these guys can definitely do better (since they already have in “Square One”). But the closer, “Nescafe Years,” it’s a shining white light of hope. OK, the lyrics are a slight bit cliché, but the song itself is excellent, all of the pieces, including a few added “bee-boos” (xylophone?) fit together perfectly and it’s an altogether great way to finish a summer album.
The album cover for DaShiJie is a winding, open road, and that’s a pretty good metaphor. This is open music, summer music, maybe even road music, but there’s definitely a journey to make, and bands could do a lot worse than a first step like this one.