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.