Sunday, December 2, 2012

Dead Sara - Dead Sara [album review]

Released in April (part of a perpetually ongoing series of reviews covering older releases that "fell through the cracks")

Whilst perusing some of the audio and video clips on the site for Nikki Sixx's Sixx Sense satellite radio show earlier this spring, I came across a band I'd never heard of named Dead Sara who I thought I'd give a try. Truthfully, their acoustic performance of the song "Test On My Patience" didn't bowl me over, but I was interested enough to explore further and check out "Weatherman", the first single and video from their independently released self-titled debut album. Hot damn. I was immediately drawn in by the song's Rage Against The Machine-like main guitar riff, the raw vocals of frontwoman Emily Armstrong, and the video's dynamic visuals. Following a quick sampling of one more track, the iTunes store was eventually $9.99 richer and I was on my way to enjoying an album that I've found myself returning to more than any other over the past half year, during a period that has seen a ton of new album releases (especially in the past three months) that have been vying for my listening attention. 

Dead Sara contains 11 songs spanning 43 minutes and there's scarcely a weak moment over that running time, save for some sketchy lyrics I can't make heads or tails of as demonstrated in most of the lyrics from "Weatherman" ("His skin was soft as leather/I'm the Weatherman") or on a track like "Monumental Holiday" ("It's just a matter your violence/Save Jesus/Laugh loud, pretend to let go/Live your life like an Eskimo"). The L.A. quartet, rounded out by founding member and guitarist Siouxsie Medley (not her birth name, I'm guessing), and newest members Chris Null (bass) and Sean Friday (drums), mixes a variety of styles that includes blues, hard rock, grunge, hardcore punk, power pop, and alt rock. Armstrong's voice is the biggest reason why Dead Sara stand out, with its amazing ability to turn on a dime from a restrained delivery to a paint scraping roar. The moments where Armstrong is in that unhinged sing-screaming mode still have a controlled musicality to them, though, which makes them significantly more listenable than most of the tuneless, shredding vocals spat out by, say, a singer from a screamo band. She also has a mighty impressive falsetto that gets regularly employed; considering the obvious early 90s rock influence evident in Dead Sara's sound, I'd bet Armstrong has spent a healthy amount of time listening to Alice In Chains CDs. Interestingly, the numerous interviews I've read from Armstrong cite folk music and Fleetwood Mac as a major influence, although these musical imprints seem less obvious to my ears whenever I listen to her band's songs. The group's name actually derives from the Fleetwood Mac song "Sara", a much wiser pick than the name the band used in an earlier incarnation when they were known as Masturbation Salvation.     

The first five tracks on Dead Sara find the band laying down their musically diverse framework, veering from one style to another and regularly within the same song. Vibrant opener "Whispers & Ashes" practically jumps out of the speakers, driven by Friday's pounding drums and Medley's spirited guitars. "We Are What You Say" marries hooky pop melodies with punk energy and is one of the album's best examples of Armstrong's vocal flexibility. "Weatherman" has so many great moments I don't even know where to start: there's Medley's stupidly simplistic, yet badass main guitar riff (along with an awesome echoed scrape noise against her guitar strings), the intro's fade-in of Friday's manic drumming and his intense playing throughout the track, Null's groove-heavy bass line that's tasteful for the spaces where he's not playing, and Armstrong's magnificently primal singing. I must have watched their performance of this song from their June appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live a good 20 times on my PVR. "Dear Love", like "Face To Face" and "Sorry For It All" on the back half of the album (the latter's more fleshed out arrangement sounds miles better than the rather lifeless version that appeared on the band's debut EP), reveals a more subdued and introspective side of the band, although the songs still have their share of big and loud dynamics. I'd classify the monstrous "Monumental Holiday" as a balls out rocker if the genital-based analogy didn't fit so poorly. On an album packed to the hilt with so many great songs, it's the dark and creeping "Lemon Scent" that stands above the rest. As on "Weatherman", Medley applies a crudely efficient octave-rooted guitar riff while the rest of the band works their magic, resulting in one of my favourite songs of the year.    

Dead Sara feels even more impactful because of the disheartening dearth these days of good female-fronted heavier guitar-based rock bands. Frankly, I'm getting kind of tired holding out for a Veruca Salt reunion. Paramore? Evanescence? The awful Halestorm? Sorry, they're not cuttin' it. Hole/Courtney Love has also seen better days. Coincidentally, Armstrong was picked by Love to sing backup vocals on Nobody's Daughter, Hole's 2010 comeback album (which I reviewed here). Really, the only other decent female-led heavy rock act out there today I can come up with (and "decent" is a gross understatement) is England's Skunk Anansie, who are barely known over here in North America. 

Dead Sara, led by the gifted vocal talents of Armstrong, deliver one of the strongest albums of the year and the most resonant full-length rock debut release I've heard since 2002's Born A Lion from Danko Jones.

Rating: A+