Review Summary: The gift that keeps on giving.... sometimes.
Alternative rock can be a hard genre for a band to be noticed in; saturation with consistent mediocrity and the generic has a tendency to smother some of the best bands that just can’t seem to become popular on a large scale. Add in the fact that many well-known heavyweights top the charts year after year and a grim outlook forms on the horizon for anyone trying to make it in this particular genre. With their recent release of “The Gift Horse”, California-borne Brown Shoe seems to be trying their best to rise above the forgettable by letting their music speak for itself. Unfortunately, what they dish out just doesn’t appear to be speaking loud enough despite its catchy, easy-going sound.
Being their most recent release, “The Gift Horse” embodies Brown Shoe’s sound in its purest form and, despite having no large-name producer, exhibits a delightfully high production value. All of the pieces in each song are usually present with the occasional moment where the bass slides under the mix to the point of being barely audible. Given the sound and style of the music, however, this fact isn’t all that surprising and never really detracts from the overall sonic value. The most notable part of the mix comes in the form of the copious reverb that bathes each track, giving each song a deep, echoing style that is rather unique and enjoyable. There is even a song that includes a well-placed toy accordion, showing the careful effort spent in instrumentation. It is obvious that Brown Shoe worked hard for crispness and clarity, the latter being especially difficult when so much reverb is included.
There are problems that manifest from their signature reverb, however, most often taking the form of a subtle repetitiveness that never gets shaken off throughout the entire album. While the depth of sound achieved is definitely appreciated, the consistency of the reverb has a tendency to make things run together. This is not helped by the fact that many of the songs choose similar keys, causing some songs to sound altogether similar to the rest of the album. There are exceptions, of course, but pushing some of the tracks into a different key would have given “The Gift Horse” a more diverse feel. This is again compounded by the vocals that, while relatively unique and always well executed, contain the same foundation in every song, bogging down the songs even more into a similar mold. While they have created some very catchy material, Brown Shoe ties itself up in creating that same material many times over, detracting from the overall enjoyment.
A saving grace from all this is the relatively diverse structuring that gives a defining characteristic to each of the songs. The band manages to steer away from falling into a 4/4 rut too often and gives most songs their own rhythmic feel. Slow builds in some songs like “The Run” (which is arguably the best on the album) to faster beats on songs such as “Pauper” bring freshening variety to the whole album, saving the listener from becoming too bored with what sounds similar throughout.
The most glaring flaw of this album is certainly the bipolar lyrics, ranging from deeply meaningful to downright confusing to laughably bad. While the focus of the album is obviously relationships and encounters with lovers, Brown Shoe manages to shine in some places and trip over its own feet in others. “C.F.” and “The Run” are surprisingly heavy in lyrical nature and show the band’s potential for solid writing; others such as “All Your Ghosts” and “Sick Man” are so tragically terrible to the point of distraction. It’s a crying shame, really: there is a large opportunity for musical brilliance by combining skilled writing with enjoyable music, but the chance has been squandered. Instead, the listener is left with a raised eyebrow and a reason not to give them a chance.
Despite these complaints, the album is still enjoyable. At heart, Brown Shoe really is just an alternative rock band: a far less known American answer to Coldplay, in a way. “The Gift Horse” feels like an album that one might listen to while driving down the road on an overcast day or while watching the rain drip down the window during a storm. It’s upbeat and yet surprisingly gloomy, but it never really shakes an unfortunate vice of sounding a bit bland. Were it not also for the appalling writing, this album and its creator would have far more potential to be a widely known act.