Rock and Roll with Heart
by Tommy Burton

Can a simple rock band balance art and noise and spit it all out in a concise manner? I really don't know the answer. Bands have always tried it in the past. Sometimes it seems like they pull it off. Others fall flat on their faces. I suppose one of the most beautiful things in the world is noise with something to say. There is something to be said for simplicity. Some of the most powerful records have been ones that are very shallow on the surface. Rock and roll should always be simple, yet powerful.

Kentucky's Speed To Roam rock. They rock hard. In this day and age of garage rock revivalism that seems to be going on in the mainstream, I am reminded that bands have been doing this type of stuff all along. Glorious, loud guitars and pounding drums drown a growled vocal. Rock music isn't (nor should it be) pretty all the time. This is the stuff that's real.

Take a listen to the band's self-titled CD, released in 2000. You are immediately confronted with snarling guitars, driving toms, and chanted background vocals. It doesn't let up from there. It just keeps rocking. But the striking thing about them isn't simply the relentless playing. They actually are saying something. Take Dylan's poetry and mix it with pure, unadulterated punk. You might come close to approximating Speed To Roam's sound. These guys are tough.

A little history: Speed To Roam hail from Kentucky. They released a kick-ass 7" on Bob Nastanovitch's label (yeah, the Pavement guy) called "Space Killer." It rocks. They released the above-mentioned CD in 2000. It also rocks. The band features Paul Oldham (yeah, the Oldham who's not Will of Bonny Billy and Palace fame), drummer Peter Townsend, guitarist Dave Bird, guitarist Jason Hayden, and vocalist George Wethington. Paul has been running Rove Studio for the past five years and recording the likes of The Anomanon, Bonny Billy, and Bright Black. It's a shining little star on indie-rock's map. The band has currently released their new CD, Later Days. Guess what? It, too, rocks.

All of the name-dropping means nothing, because this band sounds nothing like those other bands. The easy assumption would be that they sound like Will Oldham's stuff because members of Speed To Roam have been featured on Will's records over the years. Another assumption would be that they sound like Pavement because of their association to Bob. Those are too easy and too wrong. Speed To Roam are their own band with their own sound, which means they have something to say.

"TV Queen" kicks off Later Days with a killer riff and punk lyric right out of 1977 New York. The really cool thing is that the song manages to be fun while never going overboard. It's a steady tune that never lets loose with the noise it threatens you with. It's a slow burner. I would find it hard to show this amount of restraint.

"Return" kicks in with a bass line to die for. The guitar follows it into a sinewy beat. It lets out the rock a little more and the band starts to bubble over. The vocals are presented in a murk that would make Exile On Main Street look like a pop record.

The guitars start a bit more interplay on "Easy." "It's so easy to blow your mind." It's all pretty raw, yet it holds together pretty well. The drums seem to never lock into that straight rock pattern, which makes it never predictable.

"Shoot the Three" goes all cool. This sounds almost like Lou Reed threw the band a spare tune. The big difference is that this is better than most of Lou's recent efforts. It's so hip that it seems the band is in on some private trip that you can be a part of too. But only if you are hip enough.

We lumber right into "Later Days." This song stings it's so sharp. Here's the moment you've been waiting for the whole record. It lets out the noise and starts to put searing guitar noise front and center. We get some hacking and snare hits on every beat. Oh, and that glorious feedback. These guys have pushed up the ante.

"Waspinator" delivers the goods. With a title like that, it would have to. White Stripes, eat your hearts out. Speed To Roam puts it all on the table. This is rock of the highest order. "Fire in the sky" indeed.

I guess after all that rocking, the record needed a bit of a comedown. We are given a sample reading of H.G. Wells's Time Machine. They are certainly brilliant words and it puts the band into a different level of art. This may be my one complaint with the proceedings, though: It's a little self-indulgent. The musical sections are interesting and the reading is sincere enough. The good thing is, though, if you dislike this sort of thing, it lasts just long enough to never kill the record.

We led right into "Storm" which returns the album right back into rock territory. The noise becomes even more predominant, but they know their limits. This record never dissolves into complete chaos.

"Yes it's true, I love you. That's a cold, heart fact," kicks off "Kinslayer." In another dimension, this would be a great country song. In this one, it's a perfect rock and roll song. The strangest thing about this song, it sounds like a weird hoedown of ancient times. I can't really describe it, but if you gave some medieval dudes some electric guitars and locked them in a fireplace-warmed cabin in the middle of a snowstorm, it might sound something like this. This is just my observation, but it evokes this feeling for me. It's epic enough, though, no matter what you picture.

"The Crow Bonzos" would make Captain Beefheart proud. It's a hard blues played with a hard blues riff. I don't know what a crow bonzo is, but I'm positive it can kick my ass. This song does.

The final track on the record is "Sub Rosa." It returns the record right where it began with a lumbering pattern and subtle playing. It all becomes a bit more reserved and lets the listener know that this band knows how to control itself.

Overall, the album shows what a band is capable of when they have something to say, but they also recognize the power of a guitar. They let you have it all and then some on a solid disc. If rock and roll music is your game, and you like a little salt on your watermelon, give Speed To Roam a listen. Pure songs from not-so-pure hearts.

Copyright 19 Nov 2003 We Like Media.
You may email Tommy Burton.

Visit Speed To Roam's website.