BY EMMA GASE
For the Daily
Published February 23, 2010
If Little Steven Van Zandt ever needs a poster child for his obscure Sirius Satellite Radio rock station Underground Garage, he need look no further than The Strange Boys. The Austin-based group fits in seamlessly with the garage-rock titans of the past, while at the same time churning out enough unique tunes to carve a niche of its own. Be Brave, the band’s follow-up to its 2009 debut LP The Strange Boys and Girls Club, has just enough bluesy lo-fi charm to be relevant in a genre that's nearly half-a-century old.
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Be Brave has a strong opener with the appealing and sunny “I See.” The harmonicas and swinging rhythm are a promising start to a rousing album. Lead singer Ryan Sambol croons aggressively, “Tonight’s dinner / Is tomorrow’s shit / So enjoy it / Before it stinks,” commanding our attention (and our accompanying cynicism) at the start. The song sounds right out of the early '60s, evoking the same effortless cool of garage staples like The Kingsmen.
However, The Strange Boys aren’t without a few tricks up their sleeves. “A Walk On The Bleach” starts out with a slow, melancholy guitar accompanied by Sambol’s crackly vocal intonation, and plods on without hinting at any climax or hook. About two minutes in, a pleasantly surprising and furiously spastic melody kicks in that drives the song home in an onslaught of organ and guitars.
While The Strange Boys have built on their ragged sound since their debut, there is only so much of the garage style that's open to innovation. Most notably, the addition of a gritty sax solo on title track “Be Brave” provides a welcome and rowdy change of pace. Sambol’s voice, suited perfectly to loud, sloppy rock songs, drips with slacker charisma when his snarky laugh crops up right in the middle of the track.
While garage rock may be more dependent on authenticity than song quality, The Strange Boys do the genre proud on both accounts. “Friday in Paris” uses jangly guitars and an underlying organ that provides originality, but not without an ode to early electric Bob Dylan. The band adds enough quirkiness and personality to its mid-tempo, drawling rock songs to keep it away from pure formula.
Unfortunately, the Austin rockers lose their momentum in the second half of the album. The Strange Boys are best heard in the throes of their clanging guitar call-and-response choruses, not in a lazy attempt at slow balladry. Sambol’s scratchy tone, as abrasive as it is endearing, just doesn’t translate to slow acoustic songs. On tracks like closer “You Can’t Only Love When You Want,” the listener is forced to endure more than three painful minutes of Sambol’s nasally screech wringing out a love song, accompanied by his awkward noodling on an acoustic guitar. After cringing when his voice cracks for the umpteenth time, the appeal and enjoyment of the first several songs is nearly forgotten.
Unlike The Strange Boys’s debut, which was impressively stacked with 19 tracks and very few duds (if any at all), Be Brave is short on high-quality volume. The winners are definitely jewels (“Friday in Paris,” “Da Da”), but there are just as many sub-par acoustic monstrosities (“The Unsent Letter,” “All You Can Hide Inside”) on the album’s latter half. Perhaps Be Brave would have been better served as an EP or a mini-album containing only the standouts. Either way, The Strange Boys will keep bleeding authenticity from a garage near you.