There’s a lot of darkness to Robby Hale’s storytelling on Charlotte-based indie rock trio Scowl Brow’s new full-length album, but that darkness doesn’t mean it’s depressing. Maybe if it was delivered as slow, stark folk music it would turn sad, but the fast pace, driving rhythm, frank lyrics, and gruff delivery don’t allow the songs to cave-in on themselves. The makeup of the band is a simple and direct guitar/bass/drums. The rhythm section is rock solid with Scapegoat’s Justin Driscoll and A Stained Glass Romance’s Joshua Taddeo on bass and drums, respectively. It doesn’t musically reinvent the wheel, but the songs are strong, the melodies are catchy with ample bite, arrangements are engaging, and the songwriting is risky.
Risky? Yeah. Think of a mainstream band like Kings of Leon or the Strokes. Scowl Brow seems like its white trash cousin. That’s not a criticism. It’s like “Roseanne” following “The Cosby Show.” Hale’s stories aren’t pretty and neat - they’re more like Drive-By Truckers on meth - but that’s what makes them so compelling. His songs are populated with cheating and death and booze and drugs and, in one case, the sexual demise of a relationship.
Some of the tracks are angry and even chauvinistic, but it’s honest and it’s real. The album captures what life is like during your twenties (or maybe longer depending on your lifestyle) when you work a job you don’t necessarily enjoy to pay the rent and you spend your downtime time hanging out at a bar and, in this case, playing in a band. Drugs, booze, and dysfunctional relationships are the norm. And that makes for interesting storytelling.
Hale writes like someone would actually speak and you might not always like what he has to say. On “Compound Girl” he calls a girl “Nothing but a tramp” repeatedly, but reveals a romantic side asking for a serious commitment and reconciling past mistakes on “Tell Me Now.” Whether you agree with the sentiment, those songs are relatable. Relationships are messy and that’s something that’s easy for a listener to identify with. There’s a certain charm that comes from the flawed characters - real or otherwise - that populate Scowl Brow’s songs. Besides, it's not like Kanye West or Axl Rose got popular by being cheerleaders and playing it safe. People want warts and honesty in their art and entertainment, especially in a volatile economic, social, and political climate.
The approach works because the stories aren’t only compelling and the songs aren’t just snappy. The songs display heart and vulnerability as Scowl Brow combines the urgency and youthful angst of early Replacements, the messiness and distortion of Dinosaur, Jr. (without the searing solos), and the working class punk of Avail with more folk-based storytelling. It reminds me of a grittier Gaslight Anthem - as if Springsteen lacked a filter and really didn’t care what you thought about him.
Scowl Brow created buzz in local circles with its live shows and this self-titled album proves that it’s warranted. It should translate on a national level if given that kind of exposure. The group celebrates the album release tonight, July 19, at Snug Harbor. Tickets are $5 and 2013 Wolves and Black Pope open the show. For more on Scowl Brow and to check out tracks click here.
(Left to right: Taddeo, Hale, Driscoll. Photo courtesy of http://scowlbrow.bandcamp.com/)