OK, let’s just get this out of the way: Old Growth is a really bad title. Of course, it isn’t fair – nor is it usually relevant – to judge a book (or album) by its cover (or title), so trying to extrapolate the implications of a bad title is a useless endeavor. Suffice it to say, though, that the term “old growth” can conjure more horrifying mental images of geriatric dermatologic anomalies than it does high musical expectations. So it’s unfortunate that Dead Meadow (which isn’t the most inviting moniker to begin with) saddled their newest disc with such an unattractive name. It doesn’t do the contents justice.
Three years in the making and featuring one less guitarist (goodbye, Cory Shane), Old Growth lacks the rich spaciness of its predecessor Feathers (2005), the leaner lineup opting instead for an altogether more terrestrial aesthetic. The drum figures that tow the majority of the songs move at the lazy clip of signature Neil Young and go a long way toward conveying the dirt-stained vibe, but it’s the bluesy guitars and minor keys that truly summon the earth tones of the American West that boil from the music.
These performances render most of Old Growth an impressionistic echo of heat distortion rising above tumbleweed-littered landscapes. It’s rhythmic, tangible and the closer you get, the further away it seems to move. Opener “Ain’t Got Nothing (To Go Wrong)” sets this tone, and Dead Meadow runs with it – for a while. Vocally, frontman Jason Simon does nothing to undermine the carefully constructed sound that his guitar is so responsible for. His melodies, though passable, take on a necessary pedestrian quality in the context of the music that allows for the preservation of the natural balance. Even when it’s spotlighted in the front of the mix, Simon’s voice manages to function as merely another instrumental constituent among the song’s inseparable whole.
The holistic “Western” approach works, but it’s subject to one serious blunder: overuse. Despite meandering for seven minutes, opener “Ain’t Got Nothing…” never drags in the leadoff spot. But by the 11th track, “Hard People/Hard Times,” Dead Meadow requires an awfully long four minutes to squeeze out a song nearly indecipherable from the first track and five others in between. None of the songs tank, but none are distinguished.
This means the songs that break the trusted mold, either by merit or by contrast, are the peaks that tower above the endlessly extending surface scenery. When the acoustic guitars are finally showcased, Simon is able to flash his skills with his solos and vocals standing on their own. Reminiscent of His Bleakness Elliot Smith, “Down Here,” a song carried by vocals that represents a major break from the recycled malaise of the prior three tracks, is a particular standout, along with “Keep On Walking,” a surprisingly compelling major-key song.
While most old growths are difficult to ignore, this Old Growth is often asking to be forgotten, but lying within its occasionally monotonous lull is a beauty firmly at odds with the unsightly title. Sequenced together on one disc, the songs collectively threaten to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, but each is independently strong enough to keep the collection above water.
Rating:3 out of 5 stars