Review: These United States – Crimes

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Originally published in Delusions of Adequacy Nov. 17, 2008

Here’s a short lesson, for the sake of an introduction. The United States, as evidenced by the recent presidential election, has turned blue. These United States, as evidenced by Crimes, its sophomore outing on United Interests, has turned bluesy.

Gone are the more spare, psych-folk platitudes of the group’s debut, A Picture of the Three of Us at the Gate to the Garden of Eden. Crimes, recorded by the Washington D.C. act in Lexington, Ky., is a rootsy affair, full of blues-scale stomping, Creedence-tinged choruses, and the whiskey-soaked interplay of alt-country acoustics with grungier electric refrains.

Then there are the lyrics. Songwriter and frontman Jesse Elliott is nothing if not ambitious. The record, as a result, aims at a new kind of blues-rock canon by gazing at the skies and littering the terrain with familiar literary icons, from Cain and Abel and Don Quixote to Samuel Clemens and soothsaying blind men. (Eden, an emblem of the group’s debut, also surfaces.)

The problem, though, is that Crimes suffers from a problem of multiple personalities. Part of it, roughly half, to be fair, is truly great stuff, the kind of songs you anxiously filter into playlists for friends with appropriate enthusiasm. The rest, though, tends to meet expectations instead of surpassing them. It’s not that the songs are weak or half-hearted – far from it. It’s just that, if you’ve spent any time around Southern rock, you may feel like you’ve heard it before.

The group soars on tracks like the subdued “Study The Moon,” where Elliott warbles lines like “I clacked down the cobwebbing city sky crescent/ got cracked at and spat at and branded a peasant … I can’t get no sensations” over pale acoustic guitar, brushed snare and an underlying electric guitar melody that sounds like glass sliding over ice. (The chorus, where the band carefully rolls toward a crescendo, is magical.) On the album-opening “West Won,” Elliott invokes Dionysus over a boozy build-up that would make Uncle Tupelo crack a smile. The elegant ballad “Heaven Can Wait,” where Elliott quotes the aforementioned blind men spitting out lines like “I think this is the way/ Allow me to demonstrate” and “Is it me or is it dark in here/ Or is it getting late?,” effectively grinds the record to a halt for a moment of pause. “We Go Down To That Corner” will break your heart.

Elsewhere, the band falls back on the strut of indie blues-rock, if such a genre has been clearly delineated. The rollicking “Honor Amongst Thieves” hints at rockabilly. Tracks like “Six Fast Bullets (Five Complaints),” the album-closing “When You’re Traveling at the Speed of Light” and “Susie at the Seashore” were cut for dive bar jukeboxes.

But “Those Low Country Girls” stomps out the tenderness of “Study The Moon” or the elegiac “We Go Down To That Corner” with Lynyrd Skynyrd ambitions and some testosterone–laden lyrics about chasing women. And, if you can’t get into the upbeat blues-rock of “Get Yourself Home (In Search of the Mistress Whose Kisses Are Famous)” or the somewhat overcooked call-and-response of “Susie at the Seashore,” you’ll feel like you missed the boat.

These moments, unfortunately for some, define the record as much as the gems. And it’s that sort of inconsistency that makes Crimes an interesting set from a talented young group but not record-of-the-year material. Some will hail these guys, perhaps rightfully, as the latest inheritors of the blues-rock mantle. Others might take more convincing. Both would be well served to file These United States into memory. These guys could have more and better days ahead.

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