Review: The Casket Lottery – “Short Songs for End Times”

At 6:27, the album-closing “Sad Dream” is by far the longest, most ambitious and most uncharacteristic song on Short Songs for End Times, the second post-hiatus full-length LP from early-aughts Kansas City punk/emo outfit The Casket Lottery. It starts with swirling synths and unfurls with more than its share of Cracker Jack distorted guitars. The real gems, though, are pockmarking its bridge like so many diamonds in the rough. There, guitarists Nathan Ellis and Terrence Vitali, trading six-string banter, interject bits of noisy guitar asides in between shards of Stacy Hilt’s bass. (The fact alone that it holds together and doesn’t go off the rails makes it worth comment.) This is an interesting trick, one perhaps borrowed from post-hardcore acts working with far fewer templates than these guys, and it’s impressive to hear the band pull it off with real dynamism and dexterity. The song, however, is sadly an outlier. On Short Songs for End Times, The Casket Lottery proves it doesn’t have many tricks up its sleeve and often falls back on doing what it’s done time and time again: big-hook pseudo-Midwest Emo whose vocals and overly anthemic guitar strutting hopelessly hearken back to days when The Get Up Kids were considered de rigueur. Meh.

Yes, yes, you have to give it this much: the record, though not straying from carefully choreographed formulas, is not entirely a failure. On songs like “More Blood” and opener “You Are a Knife,” there’s a great sense of throttling ever forward on the verses and Hilt’s bass, for one, frequently employing rubbery hammers-on a la David Wm. Sims, is dead-on good. But Ellis often muddies things by employing his signature emo-whine and emo-bark; it’s over-processed nearly to the point of auto-tune – and, unfortunately, frequently measures as such in the resiliency department. Wasn’t there some sort of Constitutional Convention during the Obama years that decided indie rock bands shouldn’t sound like this anymore?

This, too, is true: the band tries its hand at some different colors but ends up wanting, most glaringly on the blandly art-rock-ish “Unalone,” which aims, we’re guessing, for jarring post-rock heroism but ends up feeling boring and a little bit recycled/down-cycled. “Trust As a Weapon” isn’t as interesting as its title suggests. On the other end of the spectrum, the too-obvious “Everything Is Broken” is as lame and dead on arrival as its sobriquet indicates.

It’s hard, though, to not root for The Casket Lottery. You listen to the off-tempo guitar intro to “Born Lonely” (nice if found on a different LP) or those great bridges in the aforementioned album closer and you hear the four-piece wanting to break free of the tired tropes and emo truisms. But, with Ellis as the quartet’s adenoidal frontman, it’s hard to listen to the new LP and hear anything but retreads. President Bush? 2002’s calling. It wants its soundtrack back. — Justin Vellucci, Spectrum Culture, Nov. 15, 2020

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