The Barnacles, |
Inland & Otherwise
(Blue Sky, 2003)
Sometimes I feel like I'm writing a review too late. Much too late. Forty years too late. The Barnacles' Inland & Otherwise has me convinced I've missed a fairly crucial moment somewhere, for disguised by packaging that has evidently been faded by the rigors of a time travel is a collection of rock 'n' roll, blues and folk-pop tunes that just missed their moment in the sun sometime well before my arrival on the scene.
Never mind the 2003 copyright or the relative youth of Brain Olen Spencer, Randy Belt and Kevin Hartman. Much of the album sounds like it was pulled, screaming and dancing, from a stage in the 1960s. The opening "Third Degree Burn" is less of a retro homage than a retro revitalization, with shiny guitar work and sweet harmonizing that hasn't been in favor since the Beach Boys. "Arizona Tonight" continues the rock 'n' roll feel, powered by an excellent rhythm section. "Eden Avenue" walks along with a mellow, relaxed guitar sound that hasn't been popular since punk busting drum machines. On first listen, this album is not only retro, it's disturbingly bright.
But even in their brighter songs, the Barnacles sing with a certain solemnity that keeps their songs from the realms of simple pop-rock. There's a stark undercurrent running along Inland & Otherwise, and it becomes chilling when given full voice. "Radio" features a haunting, static-faded chorus that turns a bit of nostalgia into a ghost song. "Constellation" moves away from the guitar reliant tunes that dominate the album, with mandolin and zithimer becoming audible influences in an upsetting, angsty ode to isolation. The display of their more serious side is brief but effective. By the time the album turns to its light side, even the dance party blast of "She's Fine" can't erase the knowledge that something deeper lurks in these waters.
The Barnacles' distinctive sound is reliant on harmonizing, both instrumental and vocal. Spencer, Belt and Hartman seem to have an instinct for layering their performances without overwhelming any one sound, and the songs -- written by all three band members -- are clearly tailored to the group's strength, with repetitive, catchy tunes and many chances for varied harmonics. That flexible backbone gives them room to move from bright pop-rock to wailing harmonica blues, and gives body to even the lightest song.
Inland & Otherwise isn't a perfect album. For all the excellent coordination, the Barnacles sometimes stumble ahead of themselves, delivering lyrics too quickly -- a shame, since any lyrics that can be heard are poetic and well metered. But this is a fine introduction to a band that would have been a smash sensation 40 years ago, and may yet find a good bit of fame today.