Second floor of The Eat Spot
Corner of Princess and Front streets
Saturday, November 20th, 9 p.m. • $5
With SweetSweet Scum and Libraries
Imagine: months of intermittent recording, tediously capturing every frequency and paying to have the sound professionally mixed and mastered, printing it on 1,000 CDs. Then, when they show up on the doorstep, they all skip at the same exact spot.
When Wilmington rockers Rio Bravo discovered the technical flaw on their debut full-length album “Fences,” frantically peeling shrinkwrap from cardboard to face the same stubborn blip of silence over and over again, they sent their baby right back. The duplication company acknowledged their error and overnighted them their skip-less product, free of charge. It arrived last Thursday, only one day before their album release party at the Soapbox.
The down-to-the-wire skipping fiasco was the final fence Rio Bravo had to hop for the project, which proved to be a much more extensive process than expected.
“We started recording a long time ago, over six months,” Micah Kolk, the group’s front man, says.“We had this deal with Lee Hester—an awesome producer. We were gonna do the whole record with him, and in exchange we were gonna play on his project for free. It turned out he got way too busy with his own stuff, and he was blowing up, doing well, getting on shows and stuff. We did all the drums and all the bass with him, and we recorded all the guitar and vocals in closets.”
Despite losing their valuable studio time, the sound quality of “Fences” never falters. It’s a pristine example of what a do-it-yourself recording can be in 2010.
The album opens with “Tear Me Up.” Nothing is heard but claps and palm-muted rhythm guitar when Kolk starts to sing: “Satan lives in San Francisco/but the Devil, he stays in New York/And I don’t know what we’re doing here/here without a choice.” His voice is simultaneously languid and vigorous: When it’s low, the syllables ooze out slow and cool, like a swing-era lounge singer. When it’s thrown to the height of its range, it is grating with an edge. It’s Frank Sinatra meets Kings of Leon’s Anthony Caleb Followill. These opening lines embody the mood of the entire album: a sort of pronunciation of existential crises through a lens of love, youth, and faith.
“Celine” is the quintessential Rio Bravo song, a definitive example of the group’s dynamic. Kolk’s distorted guitar delineates the pulse, while Bryan Davis’ delayed guitar melodically sings around it. Drummer Christian Black holds down a tight rock groove, pounding out the backbeat while expelling flashy sixteenth-note cymbal work. Ed Sumpter’s bass line glues it all together. The song eventually arrives at a vivid closing, in which Kolk is screaming out, “We run, we run/through the woods/through the woods/lighting fires,” while Black’s drums are simplified into a powerful stadium rock beat. Everything feels as though it’s being pushed into a foreign territory that exists in half-time, and the intensity is doubled as a result.
Even with the woods-running repetition at the end of “Celine,” the song doesn’t appear to have a real refrain, a common trope on the “Fences” album. Many of the songs feel as though they’re headed for a hook or a chorus, but what actually happens is Kolk will repeat a phrase or word from the end of the previous verse in ad-lib fashion. This happens on “For You,” “Sarah,” “So Young,” and “Type Writer.”
In this songwriting style lays an entangling paradox: Kolk’s improv (for recording, they’re likely not improvised at all but meditated) both prove his incredible vocal ability and let us down all at once. With an impressive range that converts smoothly into a flawless falsetto, Kolk has the potential to be the most innovatively melodic singer in the Port City—and he is melodic in his verses. But when the time comes for the real uplifting and novel melodies that put the sentimental cherry on top of the song, tying the meaning of each verse together, they’re not there.
Still, the album is a success, and it merits a listening to. With a reputation for raucous and entertaining live shows, Rio Bravo was able to capture and harness that energy in the studio and the closet. “Fences” proves their musicianship, and will surely get Rio Bravo out on the road.
“We want to make [music] our lives,” Kolk says. “We want to go at it all the way. We want to be away from home, 150 nights of the year.”