Review Summary: Hammers grow as a band and do exactly what we, by now at least, expected them to do.
I recently read a certain review for Black Shark
that took off points because, according to the writer of the article, instead of being the post-grunge successors to Nickelback
that Hammer No More The Fingers could have been (the band isn’t even Canadian, doy), the band goes for this tongue-in-cheek 90s indie rock aesthetic that ultimately holds it, and its second full-length, back from true greatness – yes, true
greatness, as defined by the publication. While in no way do I hold the same view as said writer, his habit of looking into the dark for things already far into daylight, or more simply his search for something that the band could never be, did seem to parallel my own past view when it came to the listening and the analyzing of bands like Hammer No More The Fingers, 90s indie rock revivalists: we are, or at least I was at the time, listening for the wrong things when hearing these bands - he the next Chad Kroeger hit machine, I mere innovation and originality.
Times have changed, however.
Every so often a record like Black Shark
lands in my hands after the realization that hooks and traditionalist songwriting were actually the primary C.S.I. tools that I should use to pick apart these bands still lost in Built To Spill
’s expanses. And I can gladly say that I hear something better. You practically already know the twang of the guitar that meets you with these (for me at least, local) North Carolinians, even before “Atlas of An Eye” starts in with its progression from a particular Joe Hall, a guitarist who likes to oddly stand behind leaves in press release photos. Bassist and vocalist Ducan Webster follows and steps up to the plate with an indie-rock-ized Britt Daniel delivery, and viola – 90s indie rock, twenty years later, with a new coat of paint. Once again. Having heard an album like this a year ago, or even months ago, I would have given it the obligatory 2.5/5, just because it, quite frankly, would have offered nothing new.
“I think it’s a little more open sounding,” the singer told The Chronicle
in a recent interview when comparing the sound of 2009’s Looking for Bruce
with Black Shark
, “it’s a lot more dynamic. It has a groovier sort of feel to it, a bigger atmosphere.” Indeed, a bigger atmosphere is one way to describe Hammer’s growth as a mirror for 20 years in the past. On “Shark”, the band explodes mid-song with murky guitar distortion and, surprisingly, hand-claps that seem to shred into resounding pieces the pre-conceived song structure that the band instilled in your head with the first verse-chorus run. Next cut “Leroy” finds Webster on the pedestal with something akin to Julian Casablancas charisma, the singer slowing down with a low-produced bed of strings that comes at the end of the track, all before exploding again for one final chorus. The band may still keep to the attributes of good ol’ indie rock that we (or, the locals) heard on Bruce
, but they’ve turned everything up a notch for an effort that far surpasses that of the minimal debut.
Dynamics aren’t the only thing pulling Hammers far and ahead of their past selves on Black Shark
, though. As fans of the old hand, we find hooks and hooks, and hidden Robert Pollard
worship, mind you, running up and down this well-made package. Varying guitar tones, all revolving on a set clean, yet slightly distorted setting, run rampant through the structure of “Steam”, a song that has the band offering vocal harmonies to complement Webster as he champions the mic like a twenty-year-old vet. “It’s about Caring” is a reverb soaked affair that keeps the singer’s voice drenched in guitar distortion, as he uses a repetition of phrases to cement his hooks: “I’ve got music playing / I’ve got people on the scene who take care of me.”
Hammers are really firm believers in the in-music-we-live-or-die philosophy, and on earlier cut “The Agency”, the North Carolinians sign themselves away to taking care of it
all by themselves: “You take care of yourself,” Webster declares, “And I’ll take care of the agency”. Blind faith against staggering opposition, a world of other 90s indie rock revivalists, and those listeners that would throw them off easily because of sounding rehashed, is almost enough for this writer to take this aspiring band totally seriously. They do write well crafted hooks and songs after all, so blatant with many of the influences we know and love, yet do so with a maturity and with reverence for these better bands, and their better albums. A tribute if you will, yet nowhere having the commercial ambitions of the next Dark Horse
(which is good), Black Shark
is the kind of record you enjoy if you know what to listen for, if you’ve heard it before, ironically, and if the band follows the decade-old recipe down to a t. The Hammers do just that, all the while giving evidence of their growing maturity as songwriters.