Sunday, March 6, 2016

EdTang & The Chops - EdTang & The Chops

Last summer, I reviewed a solid disc from an Asbury Park-based folk-rock outfit called EdTang & The Chops. The record in question, called Goodbye, Zen5, Sushi Dinner, was a solid collection of Lucero-esque, Bruce Springsteen-inspired country punk songs with an emphasis on slower material. In fact, that album’s best song – a wistful ballad about lost love called “Just Two Old Friends” – was one of my favorite songs of the year, and it gave me ample reason to catalog these guys on my mental list of “most promising new artists.”

Usually, when I place artists on that particular list, I can expect a few years of turnaround time before they finally resurface and make good on my high hopes for them. It happened last year with the band Dawes, who I discovered in 2011 and liked a lot right away, but who came back in 2013 with one of the five best discs of the year. With EdTang & The Chops, though, I haven’t had to wait that long. On the contrary, I reviewed Goodbye, Zen5, Sushi Dinner at the beginning of September, and here we are in May and the band has already gotten back to the drawing board. To be fair, the resulting release is an EP with only five songs (one of which is a cover), but that doesn’t change the core feeling that has pervaded every listen I’ve spent with this album, and that is that this brief album has realized every single lofty expectation that I laid upon these guys after that first review.

Indeed, this album – fittingly titled EdTang & The Chops – could have just as fittingly been titled The Best Damn Album The Gaslight Anthem Never Released. Those who have been dissatisfied with Gaslight’s progression away from the punk-driven direction of Sink or Swim will find plenty to love here, as the album combines that album’s raw feel with the nighttime atmosphere of 2008’s The 59 Sound , as well as the more refined melodies of 2010’s American Slang and 2012’s Handwritten, for a five-song set that provides possibly the best one-album encapsulation of what Brian Fallon and company try to accomplish with their music. And it isn’t even their fucking record!

In actuality, Tang’s voice is a bit gruffer than Fallon’s, but on this album, his lyrical and melodic abilities are considerably closer to the Gaslight frontman's than they were last time. The result of this refinement is a truly knockout set of songs, and unlike with Goodbye, Zen 5, Sushi Dinner, most of them are barnstorming rockers. Take opener “When Death Should Find Us,” a driving slice of classic rock with scuzzy rhythm guitar chords, rollicking harmonica loops, instantly nostalgic country rock guitar solos, and a gut punch of a chorus that brings the song within spitting distance of anthem status. “That’s all right, said ‘If I should die tonight, let me die tonight’,” Tang wails on the hook. I imagine the song will do quite well as a part of the band’s bar-bound live set; frankly, I wish I lived in Jersey just so I could hear it live.

While “When Death Should Find Us” is the album’s obvious highlight, it’s certainly not the only tune here that’s worthwhile. “Willy Loman” couples acoustic strums with slingshot guitar riffs and a truly inspired percussion performance (courtesy of Brad Harrison, whose crashing cymbals and snare hits truly make your heart want to beat faster). The tune just generally shows off how much The Chops have grown as a musical force on this record. There are long section breaks without lyrics, and they’re packed to the brim with the most lush and dynamic instrumental arrangements the band has assembled to date. It goes without saying that Geoffrey Myers earns his paycheck as the lead guitarist, but pianist Vic Fraternale arms the song with a surprisingly infectious keyboard loop that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on The Hold Steady’s masterpiece, Boys & Girls in America, while bassist Nick Brock assists Myers in keeping the whole thing moving. Swells of bluing background vocals tie the package all together, and make it clear that whoever recorded/mixed/engineered/produced this record needs to be a consistent band partner from here on out.

Similarly blistering numbers like “Brothers in the Way Back” and “A Lapsed Catholic” posit this EP as EdTang & The Chops’ “not fucking around” release. On the last record, the tempos were slowed down and a female vocalist was brought in frequently. Here, there’s little space for that stuff. "A Lapsed Catholic" does have bits of female vocal harmony, but for the most part, this is a record focused on inner-band collaboration and mastery. The result sounds so much tighter and more focused than Goodbye, Zen5 that it’s almost remarkable the two records came from the same band. Even the album’s “odd man out” cut – a fairly straightforward take on the traditional folksong, “Leaving of Liverpool” – feels somehow more triumphant and invigorated than the band’s past work because it comes on the heels of four of their best rock songs. There’s nothing as raw and heartbreaking as “Just Two Old Friends,” but since the record instead doubles down on raucous full band arrangements, gorgeous guitar solos, visceral drum fills, and full-throated folk-punk melodies, I’m willing to wait for the next full-length album to hear these guys do a ballad again. After all, what’s better for summertime than a set of loud and proud punk meant to be screamed dashboard? That's right: absolutely nothing.

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