Tenderhooks | Vidalia (Rock Snob)

cd_tenderhooksHis voice is mixed upfront, which means you can't ignore it. Some may wish to; Winstrom is likely gonna be an acquired taste, as there's playfulness and tension in equal measure in his tart delivery.

 

 

 

 

I've always said if a band has a great vocalist, they're halfway to success. Every other element can be tweaked, upgraded, or replaced, but the lead vocalist commands the most attention and can therefore make or break a group's chances. So having someone with powerful pipes is of paramount importance, pal. That's why I'm bestowing the "Ones to Watch" designation on Knoxville, Tenn. quartet Tenderhooks.

The first time I played Vidalia, the band's debut album, the singer's voice jumped out at me but I couldn't tell if it was a man or a woman, since the vocal timbre seemed perched squarely between genders. Curiously, the press release doesn't list the personnel, and there's a woman in the band (Emily Robinson, bass and harmonies)…so I had fun trying to figure it out. Well, it's a man; his name's Jake Winstrom. And he's unquestionably this band's greatest asset. Winstrom doesn't sound immediately like anyone else, which is pretty amazing. He has a voice well-suited to freak folk (a lá Devendra Banhart), but he's doing fairly straightforward rock 'n' roll songs here, with just a dash of alt-country. His voice is mixed upfront, which means you can't ignore it. Some may wish to; Winstrom is likely gonna be an acquired taste, as there's playfulness and tension in equal measure in his tart delivery.

But no matter; this guy is compelling to listen to, and it elevates Tenderhooks to a much higher interest level. The disc kicks off with a fairly standard bit of guitar riffage, and you're not inclined to think they're all that until the voice kicks in. Then you quickly surrender to the very catchy chorus of "If you treat me like a child, treat me like a child, I'll act like one." Just try getting that out of your head after you've heard the tune a few times.

The songs were all written by Winstrom and lead guitarist Ben Oyler. "Mouthful of Rain" is notable for an unexpected bit of gorgeous, hymn-like humming—although it doesn't last long, it reveals this band to be an outfit with good instincts overall. The meat of the album comes with three stellar tunes in a row: "Vidalia," a brisk rocker on which the sturdiness and warmth of Winstrom's voice elevates the proceedings considerably; "Quarter of a Century," which offers beautifully catchy guitar (vaguely reminiscent of Television's early work, believe it or not), sweet harmonies and one of Winstrom's most enjoyable performances; and "Flicker Street," which begins like it's gonna borrow the melody of R.E.M.'s "So. Central Rain," but takes off into its own stylish folksy pop territory. "All your dreams are gone/ There's nothing left for you to chase," sings Winstrom, aided by Robinson's pleasingly perfect harmonies. There's a cool moment where the voices jump to a higher than expected interval; it's rather invigorating. "Twenty-two" also rocks out nicely, with Winstrom singing "You look so disappointed" in a rather compelling manner.

In fact, it's Winstrom's ability to make fairly ordinary lyrics sound urgent or personal that keeps you hooked. It's a case of the whole being more than some of the parts—the music isn't always particularly original, but with the energy level the band seems to possess, their sturdiness as a unit, and Winstrom's potent voice, Tenderhooks have enough going for them to earn a big following. "I don't know what's wrong with me," sings Winstrom repeatedly in the aforementioned "Quarter of a Century." Not a thing, Jake, m'boy. You've got all you need to play this rock 'n' roll game—just keep singing and paying attention, the way you and your band are clearly doing so far. B+ | Kevin Renick

RIYL: Neptune Crush, early R.E.M., the dB's

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