The Dead Trees – [Album]

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Portland's Dead Trees burst onto the scene last year with the deliciously shambling Fort Music EP, a ragged morsel of guitar-pop crumpet that winked knowingly at the Beatles and the Clash while delivering big-chorus fun and grimy, vintage amp sounds aplenty. King of Rosa, their full-length debut, recycles Fort Music’s "Shelter”—a hook-rich, power pop gem that would likely trigger widespread pants-creaming at a Yep Roc board meeting—and adds nine more honest and direct tunes to the pot. No trickery is involved—in a time when indie rock becomes increasingly bombastic, the economy of songcraft found here is welcome.

Had they first appeared back in the early ‘90s, the Dead Trees would likely have been saddled with the then-ubiquitous “slacker” label. Half the time, King of Rosa sounds as if the band is playing with their shoes untied. You can almost see the mop top hairdos and plaid shirtsleeves rolled carefully away from their guitar strings. But the group’s loose, unpretentious approach and Strokes-in-the-rec-room production values make for a refreshing combination that is worth a hell of a lot more than a tossed off Teenage Fanclub comparison. (By the way, Teenage Fanclub devotees will love this record.)

Witness the lush, Walkmen-inflected guitars that open “Killer In Me” before it spins into a ringing garage rock workout. The calmer “My Friend, Joan, She Never Asks” wraps its wistful mood around piano keys and a shuffling rhythm. Some of Fort Music’s rootsy leanings resurface on the jangly “I Have, I Want” and “Loretta,” a standout cut that stomps along with a snarling, Lennon-esque vocal line and a chewy guitar vamp that recalls all that is pure and holy about rock and roll. The bittersweet “Twin Cities” begins with a bleak portrait of “cracked out kids searching for a surrogate sun” and ends with a hypnotically repeated refrain of “these California eyes,” suggesting that the road out of Midwestern purgatory is long indeed.

A lot of the charm comes from singer Michael Ian Cummings, who can growl with the best of ‘em or coo plaintively to great effect. His winsome, half-lidded delivery adds a compelling fragility when the Dead Trees show their softer side, as on the gentle album closer “New England Skies” or on the ominous, moody “Let Me Sleep.”

Breezing by in just over half an hour, King of Rosa makes its statement quickly and unassumingly. But the sounds and the songs stay with you.


“Shelter” – [mp3]

The Dead Trees – King of Rosa is out now. Buy it on Amazon.


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