The Earnestness Of Being Earnest

The album's opener is cut from the same cloth as "Karma Police."

It's tempting to say that earnestness fell out of favor in the '90s

rock scene, that we gave ourselves over wholeheartedly to irony, distance

and a wink instead of a prayer. Tempting, but not exactly honest. Bands

like Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins traffic in earnestness as a major

commodity, if from behind a wall of cynicism and disillusionment. Where

other media, such as television and film, have embraced emotional sleight of

hand unconditionally, music has always depended on a sense -- buried

sometimes -- of deeply felt ... something.

Varnaline feel deeply, no question about it. Their newest full-length,

Sweet Life, practically oozes with earnestness. Their specialty, the

mid-tempo ballad, is all over their fourth record (after two LPs and one

EP), and it gets a little crushing after a while.

Not that they don't do it well -- singer/guitarist/songwriter Anders Parker

has a way with alternative country-style hooks (such as they are), and his able

baritone carries the often thudding underscoring of brother John Parker's

bass and Jud Ehrbar's steady drumming. Their names for what they do -- "stomp

rock/paint-peel pop" -- are remarkable apt; they're vaguely evocative enough

to make the critic's job a little irrelevant. Imagine a long, winding

driveway off a desolate country road; around the last bend, there's a

house, a family-sized house, with a deep porch worn by use and paint

stripped by hot summers: That's the sound of Varnaline pretty much to a T

-- stately decay.

The opener, "Gulf of Mexico," provides a false sense of excitement -- it's

cut from the "Karma Police" cloth, with Jeff Buckley-ish vocals that get the

hairs on the back of your neck to stand up. Once it's over, though,

"Northern Lights" gives a better sense of what's to come: thoughtful,

capable, borderline-uninspiring acoustic rock.

Sweet Life isn't by any means full of surprises, but nor should it

be. It's a steady, solid 45 minutes of almost lulling anthems. Like

Grant Lee Buffalo without the spark, Varnaline offer up honest emotion and

a loudness that never demands that you turn the volume up.