Spook Houses - TRYING (2012)
Dave Benton in a man of ambition. As a student at SUNY Purchase, he balances his academic work with running an indie label called Double Double Whammy, producing and mixing music, booking shows, and playing in at least two bands: LVL UP, who released the excellent SPACE BROTHERS LP last year, and Spook Houses. With SPACE BROTHERS, Benton helped create a bizarrely infectious pop/rock oddity — 23 minutes of brief, stylistically varied pop. With Spook Houses, Benton seems to have a wider vision. On the appropriately named new LP Trying, he and his band attempt to actualize that ambition. In no uncertain terms, Trying is Spook Houses’ pitch for the next Great American Indie Rock Record.
Did they succeed entirely? Perhaps not, but you have to give them credit for trying. On the surface, at least, all the hallmarks of such a record are present on this album. At 32 minutes, it’s still brief, but it’s significantly longer than anything Benton has been involved with in the immediate past. It’s got the multi-part mini epics (the introductory “Try Pt. 1 / Pt. 2” and the closer “July ‘09”), the acoustic asides (“Old Folks”) and a reckless guitar smash of a lead single called “American” that kicks ass in all the ways a punk song bearing that name should. It’s even got a classic four-chord song (“Bad Sound”), which hammers that tried-and-true progression back into relevance out of sheer distorted rock catharsis. Sonically, Trying worships past Great American Indie Rock artists, incorporating guitar theatrics from Modest Mouse, vocal sensibilities from Built To Spill, and that indomitable New Jersey grit from their fellow Jerseyites Titus Andronicus. “Whoa” choruses are shouted. Horns, harmonica, and heavily layered guitars are incorporated. On ”Search For,” Benton drops lines like “Nothing makes an asshole out of one more than love” with nothing but raw, sincere conviction. For better or worse, this album scans like the latest edition of Anthemic Indie Rock By Numbers.
But you know what? That’s really not such a bad thing. Indie rock at large is in a lyrical lull right now, with bands like DIIV espousing insubstantial and lazy lyrics and shrugging it off as “atmospheric.” Even in Spook Houses’ home state of New Jersey, bands like Real Estate (whom I actually quite like) are hiding genuine lyrics under a veil of reverb. I’ve been craving for someone to shout “this dream’s all I got to keep me going” at me like Benton does on “American” for the better part of a year. 2012 needs a jolt of votive sincerity, and this album offers it up, spade after revivalist spade.
On the worst days, Trying sounds like a rushed attempt by a very young cadre of musicians to purposefully make something beyond their means and years. But when Trying is at its best — when the fall air begins to nip and you’re driving up the Garden State Parkway blasting “Bad Sound” at full volume — it’s hard not to buy into the pitch at least in that moment. There is deeper meaning here, along with individuality and creativity, but it’s hid under an enjoyable sheen of well-performed idol worship.
For instance, although many of the songs on Trying appeal to that same feeling of uneasy nostalgia that Built To Spill’s There’s Nothing Wrong With Love so perfectly captured in 1994, Dave Benton doesn’t actually sound much like Doug Marsch. However, like Marsch, he does have a unique voice that listeners will either love or hate — an nasally tenor that frustratingly spends too much time on tracks like “Try Pt. 1” in its lowest possible register. When he’s singing quietly like he does on that song, Benton’s lethargic voice has the ability to suck any trickle of emotion out of everything. When he raises it, though, wrenching himself up amidst crashing cymbals and blaring guitars in the shouted chorus of the album highlight “Witching Hour,” the listener feels compelled to rise up with him.
That particular moment in “Witching Hour” is indicative of a truth that Benton spends some time grappling with in the lyrics of Trying: effort, though innately difficult, begets more effort. Although Benton plainly lays out exactly what he’s trying to do on this album at the beginning of “Try Pt. 1,” Spook Houses seem to be trying in a more general sense throughout the record, as if the effort to live a more productive life and “search for a new kind of light” inspired the whole band to invigorate themselves musically. That vigor comes through on Trying, and even though they never quite find resolution in his efforts, the band’s hard work does pay off. Though flawed, Trying is an impressive and well-realized piece of work. If Spook Houses can sustain their ratio of ambition to effort, their future work could be even stronger.
Edit: I inaccurately credited Dave Benton with singing on “Try Pt. 1/ Pt. 2”. Band member Colin Alexander is responsible for singing on a number of tracks on Trying, in addition to Benton himself.