Review Summary: An effort from a band that, when at its best, is capable of creating some uniquely catchy songs with tremendous playback value.
Strawberry Girls have walked a fine line between being really ***ing cool and incredibly cheesy since their beginnings in early 2011. On one hand this power trio possesses the knack for writing fast-paced progressive jams similar to “The Fall of Troy” and on the other, a desire to make covers of Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe.” Call it what you want this is band eager to try new things (even though their lead guitarist has already released about a dozen full-length solo albums). French Ghetto marks the first full-length album by Zac Garren, Ben Rosett, and Ian Jennings and follow up to their 2011 EP Italian Ghosts- literally. The end of the EP flows seamlessly into French Ghetto’s opening track, “Aqua Verde”.
This album however, is hardly a continuation of the EP. For starters more than half the songs feature guest vocals, which is a stark contrast to almost every bit of material released by the band previously. There were no vocals at all on “Italian Ghost” save for a short-lived moment on “Little House in the Big Woods”. But here, on French Ghetto the vocals are all fantastic. Kathleen Delano make appearances on half of the tracks, usually belting her lungs out in the background, (think Clare Torry on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon), but occasionally taking full control of a few carefully chosen moments such as on “Bird Technology pt II, in which she dominates. She is also an integral cog on the album’s second track, “Fight Club”.
“Fight Club” begins with the soft croons of Delano over a brilliant instrumental buildup by Garren, Rosett, and Jennings- a chief example of the band working cohesively without one member outshining the other and, as no surprise, is one of the album’s best moments. A climactic breakdown ensues followed by Shane Smit singing-
I wana love you ‘till the lovin’ is gone
Won’t go on, won’t go on, no I can’t go on like this
And it is damn catchy. The transformation this song undergoes -from a simple continuation of the “Italian Ghosts” sound to a well calculated, standout, track- exemplifies the artistic mastery this band is capable of.
But, as is perhaps a testament to the group’s youth, they fail to build off the truly excellent moments of this song. “Fight Club” transitions seamlessly into the album’s single, “Negro Spiritual”, which, when initially released, I found to be far more energetic and intense than anything the band had released. Constant tempo changes and abundant journeys up and down the fret board make this song a musical rollercoaster that can be enjoyable when heard on its own. No one could ever accuse this three-piece of holding anything back and this, unfortunately, proves to be a double-edged sword. Each song strives to be so loud and in-your-face that, when every track is paired together, the album lacks true climactic moments. There are simply too many frantic shifts, jarring transitions and not enough calmer soundscapes.
But perhaps it is unfair to ask a band that defines its sound as, “aggressively groovy instrumental”, to be “calmer”. Listeners need be advised: there are rarely moments to catch one’s breath. Regardless, there are many parts that of this album that command attention such as Nic Newsham’s “Transparent Sea” and Kurt Travis’s “Visual Therapy” at the end of the album that see Garren give up the spot light and join Rosett and Jennings in the background. In “Visual Therapy” Kurt Travis sings the catchy lines-
What do you got to lose?
Just me and you.
over some sexy guitar noodling by Garren. This moment makes for one of the album’s best because the guitar is not the center of attention and this is indicative of a band that, when at its best, is capable of creating some uniquely catchy songs with tremendous playback value.
French Ghetto is in no way perfect, but it also reveals far more than mere potential- the EP showed that. No, what we have here is an album that represents a band on the brink of writing a truly amazing album. Until that is delivered however, fans should be more than happy enjoying the journey this band takes in its pursuit of The Holy Grail of Groove.