"It's not a long casual unwind," The Blam frontman Jerry Adler begins, aptly
summarizing Caveat Emptor, the meaty sophomore effort from those jangly,
onomatopoeia-loving New York City boys. Just 15 months ago, The Blam let loose
their eponymous debut, a quirky burst of retro-tinged pop-rock.
The Blam was a confident salutation and a modest success; for Caveat
Emptor, Adler and his mates shoot higher, fashioning a more ambitious album
that includes to
varying effect several dreamy ballads that attempt a hazy TV-screen flashback
of "Sunday Morning"-style Velvets-sans-Nico psychodrama.
"Death or Glory" stutters the record to life with a fuzz-drenched guitar line that doesn't entirely click until it falls to the background, and a second one chimes in from above like a life raft. "The rest of it's long and unforgiving/ All right/ I've never been forgiven," Adler offers in a characteristically sly play, riding a pulsating rhythm and repetitious, kaleidoscopic guitar chords.
"Calm Down," with its cutesy raindrop octaves and kick-ass electric bridge, follows with more clever verbiage: "We gotta hand/ It to you/ We had a plan/ To fool you." Not yet six minutes in, and one thing's already clear: Caveat Emptor's as schizo as Donnie Darko. Too conventional for prog rock and too angular to be called pop, the purgatorial first part of the album sounds as if Adler's never very satisfied with the proceedings for very long, trying out different positions of a misbegotten hook to see which ones fit for final display, like a curator moving a piece up and down, left and right, this way and that.
Finally, by the third, title track, Adler finds his spot. "Caveat Emptor" drops with the lively punch of a lead guitar and backing percussion, and then come the vocals free and easy like a fifth instrument, and in complete contrast to the underlying buyer beware moral of marriage. "Oh I've never seen this side of you," Adler belts again and again on the soaring chorus, and at once a year of seeded promise comes to glorious fruition.
In the moments on Caveat Emptor, the album, that mimic the centerpiece "Caveat Emptor," the song, all is right in this world of loud sounds come to life: "It's Not Personal," the record's anthem, is an expertly crafted pop-rock gem, replete with perfect structure, pure-poetry verses ("A near death rattle/ In a monotone line/ It's modern life/ To have and never be satisfied") and an infectious-like-Ebola melody, and the momentum bleeds right into "Writing on the Wall," with its sinister tones, overt energy and last-gasp blasts of forgotten rock 'n' roll.
Unfortunately, they're not all like that. Emptor's quieter tunes are a
mixed bag: wispy, whispering "Elliott" and coy playmate "The Box Is for Me," shoot
for hippie and trippy, respectively, but fail to achieve the lazy laconic charm
of songs like "8546" from their debut, sounding clunky and overworked instead;
an exception with hand raised, the slight and psychedelic "How Did the Flies
Get In," makes the most of its floating harmonies, chirping synths and reverberated
starts and stops. As a textbook closer, the spacey, expansive "Everybody" wields
a mighty agenda but is shackled by its own indulgence, in spite of a gorgeous
90-second fadeout worthy of Grandaddy or Built to Spill.
Silly moniker notwithstanding, "The Blam" should serve as a proper modus operandi for the new direction of this band both lyrically and musically, they've swapped ephemeral bus-stop whimsy for explosive, world-weary break-up stories. Jettisoned is the bouncy, charismatic naïveté that graced their fresh-faced debut, replaced here with more refined rockers and a slicker, weightier production that at its best oozes accomplishment but at worst sounds premeditated and, ultimately, somewhat predictable.
Still, it feels wrong to blame Adler for such perfunctory effects of maturation; when it works, he's a songwriter beyond reproach, and he strings together sparse, evocative stream-of-consciousness words that fit their songs well. No, if he's to be criticized for anything, it's for the ill-advised softening of his new sound through a few tenderized ballads and overwrought epics that shred some of the continuity from an otherwise cracking rock record. "I don't have a goddamn thing/ Planned out," Adler insists, yelping over a throbbing, distorted Black Rebel bass intro on the fabulously punked-out "I'm in a Panic." Here's hoping he keeps it that way.