Review Summary: A band finding itself
It’s hard for me to approach this is as an album and judge it by the same standards that I apply to the studio perfected compositions that I’m used to. Belongs to the Dead
sounds more like a demo than a finished recording. Fortunately, Tigers Jaw was able to overcome technical limitations and use the low recording quality to give their songs an atmosphere of inexperience and experimentation that has an unmistakable charm.
The thing about the production is that it can’t be described as simply being bad.
Though they weren’t able to get any kind of fidelity on distorted guitars, they compensate by keeping distortion low in the mix when it’s there, but primarily using clean channels and relying on the drums to provide that “punch” when they need it. Often distortion is only used as a background fuzziness while the focus is still on the clean guitars. Because of this, it doesn’t sound like someone tried to record The Blue Album
on a 4 track, which it easily could have. By understanding their limitations and playing to their strengths, Tigers Jaw was able to make a record that has a unique and engaging atmosphere.
Don’t be mistaken though, there’s more to this record than the quaint charm of lo-fi recording. Although all of the songs are candidly simple, a good number of them manage to be memorable because of clever, well-timed chord changes and unpretentious lyrics. The lyrics are really at the heart of what makes this album worth listening to. They don’t attempt to say anything profound, and they aren't overwrought with political or social commentary. Rather, they come off as collections of thoughts held together by quiet youthful sentiment. Songs are replete with lines like “what about your friends, do they make you happy"” and “tell your baseball coach you’re sorry that you quit.” The unassuming nature of the lyrics is magnified by vocalist Adam McIlwee’s delivery, as he sings just a bit off key in a kind of endearingly lazy croon like he was able to put forth just enough effort to get near the correct pitch. It’s especially impressive on the song “Cannonball,” in which the line “I’ll survive another day” is repeated for almost the entirety of the track, but is somehow made interesting and believable because of the way it is presented.
Although low production values and straight forward songwriting give Belongs to the Dead
its charm, they also limit its lasting impact and cause it to drag on at times. Almost every song is at the same tempo in the same 4/4 time signature, and it’s not uncommon to feel that the songs are enjoyable, but don’t seem to really go anywhere. Once they’ve established their chord progression and vocal melody, they tend to just coast into the finish without really doing too much interesting instrumentation wise. They often repeat verses more often than necessary and carry instrumental sections too long even though most songs are only around two and a half minutes. It’s indicative of a band that didn’t have enough ideas for a full length album but tried to stretch what they had into one, and that’s really the main reason that I can’t really justify more than a 3 as much as I might like the atmosphere or the lyrics.
Though clearly imperfect and incomplete, the music delivered on Belongs to the Dead
is youthful, and at times poignant. It’s a difficult recording to classify: It’s a debut, it’s a demo, it’s an experiment; it’s all of the above, and it’s a worthwhile listen.