Nothing flags a band as “amateur” quite like not knowing how to properly digest influences. All too often, new bands sound either like a half-baked, awkward mashup of the bands they list on their MySpace page under “influences,” or like a tribute band. Reverse Neutral Drive are not one of those bands.
On their debut album, Bringing Down Babar, it’s easy to hear RND’s inspirations, but they distill a wide spectrum of influences into a smart, well-constructed identity of their own. They sound familiar, because they sound like lots of bands. But they don’t sound like anyone in particular.
After a short, meandering instrumental intro track, the album kicks off in earnest with the peppy “Craig’s Lust.” The track sets the template that most of the remaining songs follow: propulsive, post-punk rhythms melded with a ska-like bounce, and creative melodic interplay between punky guitar and bright, Wurlitzer-style keyboard. It’s a smart, infectious and fun sound that seems tailor-made to excite people at live shows.
Vocalist/guitarist Geoff Bennington’s voice stands out immediately, not because it’s good but because it’s, well, not. It’s pretty flat and tuneless, actually — but it’s also oddly alluring. Think David Byrne but with more heart-spilled-on-page earnesty and less art-school irony. Bennington sounds like he can’t quite keep up with the energy level of the music happening around him, but that actually makes the songs more interesting. When he gets worked up enough to scream on the penultimate track, “Life Is Fine,” it’s like someone finally handed him a Red Bull.
The energetic “Things to Do Instead of Just Doing It” represents the band at its finest, superbly blending the range of influences. But the album doesn’t go any further than that. Although RND have the guitar/keyboard melodic interplay thing down pat, they lean on it too much. And at 13 tracks and nearly 54 minutes, the album is simply too long. A very good EP or shorter disc resides in here, but there aren’t enough ideas to sustain a recording of this length. Someone get these guys an editor!
On the occasions when RND do color outside their self-defined lines, they succeed quite nicely. “Breakfast Time Waltz” is easily one of the standouts, as the band tones down its boisterous tendencies for a rare down-tempo moment. Keyboardist Taylor Johnson’s tasteful flourishes work especially well on this track, and a lush arrangement with strings and melodica hints that the band could probably do chamber pop as well as they do post-punk, if they wanted to.
Although their sound wears thin after nearly an hour, the band’s fun and energy are pretty infectious. Reverse Neutral Drive sound accomplished and creative on Bringing Down Babar and, length and redundancy issues aside, it’s a solid debut.