Posted by: Necci – May 01, 2012
I stumbled across this band in the sort of random fashion that's become more and more common in the age of the internet--someone I'm friends with posted a link to them on facebook. The link was to an upcoming show they'd be playing in Richmond. I clicked through to their facebook page, listened to their single, "Weatherman," and liked it enough to hunt down a copy of their self-titled debut, which came out a few weeks ago. The show in Richmond came and went, and I didn't make it out, but I did keep listening to the album. I knew I liked it, but what I couldn't figure out was what sort of an album it was. Eventually I realized that what I was really trying to figure out was whether it was OK to like Dead Sara. I've spent a lot of time over the last several years trying to break myself of the longtime instinct to classify music as either "cool" or "uncool" before I allow myself to form an opinion of it one way or the other. Old habits die hard, though, and it took a lot of conscious effort on my part to stop trying to figure out whether Dead Sara counted as "mainstream rock" (like Nickelback, eww) or "alt-rock" (like Jane's Addiction, cool!), and just go ahead and listen to their album.
Dead Sara are from Los Angeles, and they have the production to prove it. This album is polished enough that you wouldn't be surprised to hear songs from it on the radio. The vocals are loud, clear, and at the front of the mix. The drums hit hard, and the bass is more felt than actively heard. The guitars are thick but not very distorted; instead, the tone is perfectly balanced and polished. This is dead-center mainstream rock production, and for me, that's always a little off-putting, because it's a production style that's usually accompanied by formulaic songwriting and risk-free performances that appeal to the lowest common denominator. I wouldn't say any of that about Dead Sara, though, and the main reason I wouldn't is that their singer, Emily Armstrong, completely refuses to be just another mainstream rock singer. As high as they are in the mix, her vocals set the tone for the entire album, and she spends a great deal of it wailing her heart out. On almost every chorus on this record, she's pushing her voice to the limits of its register, balanced right on the border between singing and screaming. She never does a straight up metal scream in the manner of, say, Arch Enemy's Angela Gossow. Instead, she channels the emotional urgency of Janis Joplin at her most fired-up, while still making clear that underneath all of that fury, she can still sing for real if she wants to. In fact, she proves that she has quite a bit of conventional vocal skill on the album's few slower songs, such as "Dear Love" and the mournful closer "Sorry For It All."
Guitarist Siouxsie Medley has plenty of chops as well. Dead Sara are a heavy rock band at heart, but regardless of how hard they hit on any particular track, there are always plenty of melodic guitar leads woven through the mix. As Dead Sara's only guitarist, Medley is clearly laying down a lot of tracks in the studio to create the thick wall of guitars that provide a rock-solid foundation for this entire album, so I question how easy it would be for the band to recreate their studio sound in a live environment. Where the LP is concerned, though, the strength of their riffs is unquestionable, and this is to Medley's credit. The heaviest songs here, such as leadoff single "Weatherman," "Test On My Patience," and "Monumental Holiday"--which is my early pick for best overall song on this album--crank up the gain and hit hard, bringing to mind the dark power of Alice In Chains's Facelift, or the glammed-out biker metal of The Cult's Electric. When Armstrong unleashes the full strength of her gale-force wail on the choruses, Dead Sara are quite the force to be reckoned with, and its these moments which keep drawing me back to this album.
No doubt about it, this is an album that was created with chart success in mind. Along with the uptempo rockers that provide my favorite moments on this album, there are several stylistic detours mixed in, some of which work better than others. "Timed Blues," a slowed-down experiment with Zeppelin-ish slide guitar riffing, might throw you at first, but once that first heavy chorus hits, it'll quickly win you over. On "We Are What You Say," Armstrong and Medley forgo the howl and crunch to create an uptempo tune with a real pop melody and, in so doing, prove that they'd have been just as good at making emo records. Meanwhile, tolerance for the album's slowest, quietest ballad, "Face To Face," will vary depending on the listener--I find it eminently skippable.
Overall, Dead Sara is not the most consistent of albums, and I could probably do without two or three tracks. But there are way more hits than misses, and the high points are high enough to make the whole thing a very enjoyable listen. If you're still wondering what genre Dead Sara fit into, whether they count as alternative rock or if they're part of the mainstream, I still can't help you. But I can tell you that they're a damn good band, and if that's not a good enough answer for you, then I suggest you rethink your approach to music.
By Andrew Necci