November 04, 2004

Conshafter "Fear the Underdog"

Bombco, a label that some Chicagoan friends of mine used to run, lived by a sarcastic but apt motto: “Indie-rock isn’t a sound; it’s a business model.” Let’s be honest, though. When most of this site’s readers hear the phrase “indie-rock,” they think of white guys with odd singing voices playing guitars and drums unconventionally and recording on cheap equipment. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that --- THIS black guy will certainly fly the flags of Pavement, Sebadoh, GBV and Boyracer until he dies. Nonetheless, if one must get technical about it, any rock band that operates without the aid of major labels and/or corporations could be called “indie-rock.” Virginia quartet Conshafter definitely fits this looser definition, but even a cursory listen to their debut album Fear the Underdog gives their ambitions of mainstream success away. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that either --- what band WOULDN’T want their music to reach as many people as possible? However, this band makes an unconvincing case for itself by emulating the styles of as many radio-friendly unit shifters as possible without adding anything of their own that could be considered distinctive or substantial.

Conshafter’s basic sound is what Weezer would sound like if their songs were played at Superchunk speed, with choppy power chords, a muscular rhythm section and an off-key lead singer whining on top of oodles of wordless background harmonies. It isn’t the most original sound on the planet, but it would be tolerable were it not for the endless supply of unforgivably bad lyrics and stylistic clichés. “Love Song Hypocritical” begins by bemoaning its own existence: “I know it’s sort of kind of lame. All these stupid love songs --- they sound the same!” However, self-awareness isn’t its own reward, and Conshafter don’t do anything to make the song stand out among the trillion others of its kind…four more of which appear on their own album! The lyrics of “Enjoy the View,” “Autopilot” and “Joey Ramone” are filled with rhythmic placeholders (“Wait for a second, I reckon, before you throw me out/I’ve got something to say, without a doubt”) and obvious internal rhymes (“Think it’s time for a change/Feel deranged, estranged and chained/And it all ends up the same”).

The band uses up every trick in its collective sleeve by the middle of the album. There are two tracks that begin with menacing spoken verses and climax in loudly sung choruses. There are four tracks that abruptly shift into disjointed breakdowns that sound nothing like the rest of the song, yet don’t make the song any better. Then, there are the ill-advised attempts to sound like completely different, yet equally popular, bands. “Springville,” a piano-driven song about small town decay, sounds like the band’s attempt to pull of a Rufus Wainwright. The even worse “Autopilot” is crammed with tired drum loops and turntable scratching. It sounds like the Dust Brothers remixing an Oasis outtake, which made it all the more shocking when I read that the song was co-produced by Keith Shocklee of THE BOMB SQUAD!!! Somebody needs to reissue the classic Public Enemy albums soon so that Shocklee won’t have to associate himself with bands this bad just to get a check.

The best thing that Conshafter has going for it is its rhythm section. Drummer Craig Nelson has an endless supply of cool fills, and bassist Rob Teague inserts some really tuneful melodies into otherwise excruciating songs. Singer Chris Konstantinos and guitarist Dave Cykert aren’t necessarily bad at their instruments, but I wonder how much better the band’s music would be if the other two guys wrote the songs instead of them. Unfortunately, Conshafter inspire pity more than they do fear. I know that they’re reaching for the brass ring, but right now they don’t have what it takes to become more than underdogs. This may be one of the blandest albums I’ve heard all year.

--Sean Padilla

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