River City Extension are still searching for their sound on new album
I love pop songs, and “Welcome to Pittsburgh” is a great, bittersweet-but-hooky indie-folk pop tune. When I first heard it I was convinced it was only a matter of time until it was sweeping alternative radio stations and River City Extension were stars. That was in 2012, and the song was off of their sophomore record Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Your Anger. The band had no such luck.
I caught the New Jersey eight-piece, who play the Crepe Place on Saturday, in San Jose on that tour. They played a fun set to an intimate crowd with guitars, drums, strings, horns and percussion, even closing with a lively drum circle. It was an indie-folk jamboree, like Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, but rather than a Haight-Ashbury feel, they brought a gruff Bruce Springsteen vibe—the world is a harsh, unforgiving place, but at least we can still express our pain in music.
That record maintains a certain degree of the fun from their live show, particularly on their stronger tunes (“If You Need Me Back In Brooklyn,” “Ballad of Oregon,” “Everything West of Home”). As a whole, it’s a mixed bag. Other songs get long-winded and laborious. But “Welcome to Pittsburgh” more than makes up for any of its flaws—not only is the song catchy, but the lyrics bring a darkness and complexity to it. In fact, the record as a whole is emotionally complex and filled with regret.
Three years have passed, and River City Extension have finally released their follow up, Deliverance. As the title implies, the new record is more optimistic and oddly vague. It hasn’t been an easy road for the band between records. They went through a series of lineup changes and tragedies, including the death of drummer Steve Tambone last December, and their lack of success from the previous record affected them. The band nearly called it quits, but in an interview with Asbury Park Press lead singer Joe Michelini stated plainly, “We all had to look in the mirror and ask do we want to do this, and the answer is yes.”
The once folk-oriented eight-piece has contracted to a lean rock quintet. They still are sporting a viola, but accompany it with a lot of power-pop riffs. Michelini is gifted at building tension and dynamics, and never settles on simple song structures, but driving, epic rock ’n’ roll isn’t quite the best package for his music. One of River City Extension’s strengths was that behind their upbeat folk influences lurked some broken-down, working-class rockers. But with the rock sound up close and center, it’s a bit of overkill. Opener “Something’s Got To Give” is just too epic to fully enjoy. River City Extension’s music is better when they’re subtle.
The album was recorded in an abandoned ski lodge in the Poconos, and they stitched it together with what must have seemed like everything working against them. The feeling of hope and determination drove them to make it, but in the process it feels like they lost some of their authenticity. Their last record is filled with a rich array of feelings and detailed stories with real characters, or ones at least that feel real. Deliverance feels more like a collection of platitudes. And, most importantly, it lacks a song anywhere in the vicinity of “Welcome to Pittsburgh.”
The second half of the record gets more interesting. “Deliverance Pt 2,” the sixth track, is a somber acoustic ballad (though with still a positive spin). The album closer “I’m Not There” is a piano ballad in the vein of Jackson Browne. It at times nearly beckons the audience to wave a lighter along (Things are hard now/They’re going to work out/I’ve seen the falling of the storm), yet there’s something mysterious and dark about it, which is punctuated by its abrupt ending and closing line. (Going to quit my thinking/Going to try to blend in/like I was never really there.)
I’m not really sure what he’s getting at here, or why this otherwise beautiful song was given such a jarring ending. It feels like, after a series of ups and downs, River City Extension is still trying to find its groove.
INFO: 9 p.m., Saturday, March 28, Crepe Place, 1134 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. $8. 429-6994