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Better Looking Records

Unfortunately, compilations, greatest-hits collections, and reissues often attempt to misrepresent themselves as achieving something other than the opportunity to make money off of previously released songs. Suddenly, by intricately assembling a batch of songs that either obviously go together (they were all singles, they were all top forty hits, or they were all on the same album) or have nothing to do with each other (other than the fact that they were all released in the eighties), these albums supposedly impart on audiences everywhere a new understanding of what it meant to live at a certain time in a certain place in a certain culture. The liner notes from Boilermaker’s new album would have us believe that their music serves as an opening into a moment in time and space where we can experience the essence of the town that shaped the music. In compiling Boilermaker’s three EPs and adding two new songs, Leucadia works more as an opportunity for the band to reissue their material on a bigger label than as a private view into their personal history.

The most frustrating aspect of the album comes in the fact that it does succeed on several levels unrelated to nostalgia and a California town. By bringing together three shorter albums that do not stand so well on their own, Boilermaker allows us to judge the band in terms of their entire catalogue and consequently see their progression as songwriters over the better part of a decade. Witnessing this process of change through the album offers much greater insight into Boilermaker’s relationship to the music going on around them. The two new songs have an air of nostalgia, but they work better as previews of the band’s new direction than as signposts commemorating the past. With these strengths, it seems strange that Boilermaker want to turn this compilation into something it is not.

Structurally, Leucadia arranges Boilermaker’s three EPs in chronological order and frames them with the two previously unreleased songs. The new track "Whitewash" opens the album on a tone that cannot be entirely appreciated until having heard the rest of the album. While not offering much originality, "Whitewash" serves up a delicate mixture of distinctly Californian sounds. Lush vocal harmonies wash over a soft blanket of instruments with a sweetness almost as bubblegum as this sentence. The closing track and second new song "Cruel Heart" works in much the same way, taking influence again from the Beach Boys with perhaps a greater dose of psychedelia than surfing. Boilermaker do infuse these songs with a sense of place, but these are really the only two on the album that "sing Leucadia."

As for the collection of EPs, these fifteen songs owe more to the burgeoning indie scene in the early to mid-nineties than to geography. To their credit, a certain Pacific lyricism informs the melodies and chord progressions on several of these songs in a subtle way, but never overtly enough to characterize the songs as "Leucadian." The main thrust of Boilermaker’s sound in the nineties comes from dabbling in emo, post-rock, and alternative territories. They do all of this well enough without excelling at any of these styles.

Boilermaker’s ventures into post-rock, especially with touches of math-rock rhythms, prove the most rewarding. Bassist/vocalist Terrin Durfey provides a darkness and introspection in bass lines reminiscent of Sunny Day Real Estate while guitarist Rich Sanderson complements with unexpected yet completely appropriate chord changes (think Led Zeppelin and Stone Temple Pilots). Drummer Tim Semple helps achieve good levels and dynamics in the songs but rarely furthers their tendencies towards the avant-garde. In general, these qualities do not follow through very far on their promises.

From the 1994 EP Watercourse, "Hill" and "Trunk" are the most exciting tracks with rhythms offering more than the alternative guitar drone of the three other songs. "Iris" and "Slowdown" stand out on 1996’s In Wallace’s Shadow. This EP in general shows Boilermaker focusing more on lyricism and harmony than on Watercourse, and the result is a quieter album with a greater emphasis on technique. The first three songs from the untitled 1998 EP seem a step back into the alternative gloss, but "Sunset Ridge" and "Thinner Runs Through Her" provide the best rhythmic movement of any of the three albums.

While the avant alterna-grunge of these fifteen songs rarely equals that of Boilermaker’s peers, having these three albums packaged together allows listeners to hear and identify the movements in mainstream and underground music taking place through the nineties. Boilermaker’s lack of a strong sense of identity balances out against their ability to play off avant-garde guitar work against straightforward alternative progressions. These songs are never quite inspired and never quite lame.

Listeners may not discover the essence of a California town in Leucadia, but they can at least find a look at a band progressing further and further into songwriting competence. With the remarkable shift in direction from Boilermaker’s last album to the two new songs, it seems unclear as to whether the band finally found their true sound or just gave up on a genre that just was not working for them. Either way, this compilation reveals Boilermaker as interesting and capable songwriters in the past and into the future.

Matt King

Track Listing:

  1. Whitewash
  2. Roller Rink Skate Date
  3. Hill
  4. Switch
  5. Lot 235
  6. Trunk
  7. Iris
  8. Slow Down
  9. Last Good Growth
  10. Pathos Delay
  11. Breach
  12. Norman
  13. Last Stop On The Way To Vegas
  14. Last On The Drive
  15. Sunset Ridge
  16. Thinner Runs Through Her
  17. Cruel Heart

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