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Dazed, But Not So Strange

The Strange Boys get ahead by getting familiar

The Strange Boys--wiseacres beyond their years.

By Raymond Cummings | Posted 6/10/2009

The Strange Boys

Sonar, June 12

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Where youth and musical indoctrination go hand-in-hand--the pressure cooker of hormones and close proximity operating at full intensity--amazing things can happen: think Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Bad Religion, Green Day, or the Libertines. Spill blood relations into that volatile mix, and the results can be even more elemental, more explosive: think the B-52s, Black Dice, Radiohead, the Flaming Lips, Kings of Leon, or No Doubt, each of which featured siblings or cousins at one point or another. Formative, coming-of-age misadventures and shared debaucheries survived can be ties-that-bind bonds yielding canonical bounty.

Austin, Tex. foursome the Strange Boys--and their growing corps of fans--benefit from these twentysomethings falling into the second category. While frontman/guitarist Ryan Sambol and drummer Matt Hammer formed the band in 2003--while attending middle school in Dallas, which is amazing--their lineup would expand to include Ryan's older brother Philip on bass and guitarist Greg Enlow two years later.

The Strange Boys and Girls Club (In the Red), the band's rootsy, startlingly self-assured debut, nicely embodies the intimacy of brotherly and tight-bros-from-way-back familiarity. On each of these 16 songs, the players' parts complement, slouch, and melt effortlessly into one another, creating a worn-slipper effect: the rhythm section truculently trundling around at the bottom of the mix, the guitars reeling and windmilling about upfront like barflies on the verge of being ejected into the night. Ryan Sambol's greasy, ragged vocals tie the components up in a sloppy bow; his moonshiners' whine is all over the buttery arrangements like a suit so cheap a beggar wouldn't accept it.

The Strange Boys project certain collapse without ever actually falling apart. Given their ages, it's interesting to note that Club's bluesy, soul-tinged feel plays to the members' grandfathers' generation: They're like the house band at a Texas whiskey distillery, if that house band was the Rolling Stones fronted by Bob Dylan--or, perhaps, childrens' television rocker dude Dan Zanes--and management paid performers in double shots instead of cash. Every note reels with the hard weight of on-the-road decades the Strange Boys can't actually claim to have logged just yet, of countless stages, regrets, sorrows. Somehow, they fake this all too authentically.

Fittingly, "Woe is You and Me" calls this Club meeting to order deep in the cups, as Sambol's despondent yodel competes with the band's shuffling jangle to sketch a scene where one drinker commiserates with another about love's crippling pitfalls. Grottoes of tangled licks dot "To Turn a Tune or Two."

With its bowlegged rhythmic strut, "Heard You Want to Beat Me Up" plumbs an unrepentant playboy's dread with splintered riffs and snare-stuck hiss: "I'm in trouble with another man/ I did something I shouldn't/ Get me outta here, if you can, and I won't do anything you wouldn't." Given its shabby-chic melodic core, "To Turn a Tune or Two" feels likely to change into Spinal Tap's "Gimme Some Money" at any given second, but there's something more vague at work in the song: it splits the difference between being an ode to the wellspring of songwriting inspiration and a hosanna to a new love. "Oh, I locked my front door, but you still got in/ I swear, I locked my front door/ I must be in love again," Sambol exclaims, awash in harmonious and cryptic chorus koans like "Being honest to yourself can be a lie to someone else."

When Club casts aside commonplace themes like the ones above to address worries rooted in the here and now, the Strange Boys' swagger acquires a Baby-Boomer-cum-wingnut anthem quality. Folky, homespun "Then"--a lesser "The Times They Are A'Changin'"--casually blames Sept. 11 on the U.S. government, while blues implosion "They're Building the Death Camps" hides its paranoia behind a incredulous scowl. "Haven't you seen all the cameras? Haven't you noticed more cops?" Sambol pleads. "I'm scared, but no-one else around me seems scared."

Owners of Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965%u20131968 will likely find much to love about Club, and the Strange Boys may act as an intergenerational portal for burgeoning young musicians who've yet to encounter Bo Diddley and the Oblivians. But whenever a fresh new band arrives on the national scene this seasoned and fully formed, it's difficult to shake off the sense that they've nowhere to go but down in a hail of chemicals and burdensome expectations.

With each successive post-Is This It album, the hype buoying the Strokes--another band of old pals trading on rumpled, back-in-the-day hipster cool--cooled as the NYC-based quintet strayed from its signature sound into experimentation and solo projects; Neutral Milk Hotel folded after a pair of highly acclaimed discs, while Canada's Unicorns split before a backlash against its death-obsessed breakthrough album even had a chance to coalesce. Here's hoping that the Strange Boys' collective resolve is as stolid and unshakable its songs are, that they slouch forth to forge a brilliant catalog of killer tunes to get bent and black out to.

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