The Consistency Trap
What to Do When the Songs Remain the Same

I know what you want to ask, and here are your answers: yes, I have seen “Deep Breath,” and no, I’m not quite ready to talk about it.

I am still processing the debut of the amazing Peter Capaldi as the 12th Doctor – I’ve seen the episode four times, in fact, and one of those in a movie theater. It’s perhaps a testament to the ambiguity Steven Moffat has so generously leavened into the broth this year that I still am not sure what I think. “Deep Breath” is unlike any episode of the show to date, and Capaldi (so far) unlike any Doctor. I’ll have more to say about him next week, after I’ve seen “Into the Dalek.”

But one thing I do want to say is this: Doctor Who is the ballsiest show on television. Growing up with it, the show taught me to accept and embrace change. Every four episodes, the setting, plot, characters and themes of the show would completely alter – the Doctor would find himself on another alien world, and get involved in foiling another power-hungry plotter. And just as you were getting used to the new story, it would change again. Hang on long enough, and every single actor would change as well. The Doctor would get a new face, and find new companions. The show’s only constant is change.

And that leads to a certain, shall we say, inconsistency throughout its nearly 51-year history. I remain amazed at how Doctor Who can be brilliant one week and unforgivably awful the next. It never seems to matter who is in the producer’s chair. Every Who season has its classics and its clunkers. There’s a certain thrill to that, to not knowing whether the next story, the next cast of characters, or even the next Doctor will be any good. Sometimes, though, I wish for a footing that’s a little more solid. I love this crazy show, but I’m sure I wouldn’t love it less if it were more regularly excellent.

Is there such a thing as being too consistent, though? Audiences hunger for the new thing, but if the new thing is just like the old thing, those audiences start to drift. There’s a danger in doing one thing very well. If you want a good example of that, look to Athens, Georgia’s Bill Mallonee. Here’s a guy who has been at it since the early 1990s. He has dozens of releases, both solo and with the Vigilantes of Love, and many of them are only available on his Bandcamp site. At the peak of his popularity, he was signed to Compass Records.

Mallonee has hit harder times since, and now his career is based around that Bandcamp site. Every year he puts out another two or three albums, very occasionally making one available on CD. He plays house concerts now, and has had to sell off gear to pay the bills. The music continues, though, and on the strength of Winnowing, his (I think) 62nd record, it remains consistent. The question is whether that’s a good thing.

Bill Mallonee writes great songs. But if I have a complaint about him, it’s that he writes the same kind of great song over and over again. He’s done so for his entire career. He’s shaken up the production here and there, most notably on VOL’s Summershine and his own Fetal Position, but the songs have stayed what they are – literate Americana with a focus on the guitar, and few jump-out-and-grab-you melodies. Mallonee has a signature style, and he does it very well. Do you need 62 albums of that style? I’m not sure you do. In fact, I have only bought the ones he prints on CD, including Winnowing.

This new one is similar to his last, the digital-only Dolorosa. Mallonee plays all the instruments except piano and organ, leaving those to his partner in life and art, Muriah Rose. The vibe is quieter, more acoustic, but still focused on that great, biting Mallonee electric guitar sound. Here the lead lines weave into the acoustics, creating a gorgeous web of tones. It’s a good sound, even if it does sometimes betray its one-man-band origins – Mallonee’s a good drummer and a good bassist, but a more live feel with other players probably would have improved this. Still, there’s an intimacy to this one that wasn’t quite captured in the grooves of recent records like Amber Waves, and I appreciate that.

The sound fits the vibe of the songs, too. Winnowing is a typically reflective piece of work, delving into the difficulty of faith, the inevitable collapse of everything, and the need for hope through it all. As a lyricist, it’s impossible to fault Mallonee. He’s always bled onto the page with the soul of a heartland poet, and Winnowing is no exception. I’m especially fond this time of opener “Dover Beach,” a true “here’s where I am in life” song: “To have traveled for these many years and knocked on all these doors, I got tired of trying to bend an ear, I got tired of keeping score, sometimes a son of heaven, a son of hell even more…” I love “Got Some Explaining to Do,” a song about giving the devil his due, and “Dew Drop Inn,” which sports this delightful chorus: “The road winds hard and the road winds cruel, and hearts being what they are, let’s just say it’ll be OK and I love you, just because…”

The record’s one misstep is “In the New Dark Age,” which mars a fine lyric with some dismal synths. But Winnowing ends well, with the lovely and dark “Now You Know” capped by “Tap Your Heart on the Shoulder,” a bonus track that makes for a fine closer. “Only so many days, only so many nights, only so many smiles you can fake, hey reach over and tap your heart on the shoulder and see if she’s still awake…” Throughout, Mallonee’s voice – weathered and aged, but still commanding – delivers these words with an honesty that can’t be faked.

So yeah, I like Winnowing. It’s a darker, quieter, lower-budget affair than Mallonee’s last few, but it is unmistakably him. And that is its biggest weakness, as the 62nd or so of his albums. The songwriting is so similar to virtually everything else he’s done that it can only stand up next to them, not surpass them. I have always liked what Mallonee does, but each new album gets one or two plays and then is filed in with the rest. I expect he’ll stick with what he does best until he’s too old to do it anymore, and at this point it’s probably too much to hope that he’ll shake things up.

Those who love Mallonee – a small but committed number – likely wouldn’t want him to anyway. But if you already have the man’s best work, both with Vigilantes of Love and solo, I wouldn’t say you need to rush out and get this. If you’ve followed him this long, though, you know what to expect, and Winnowing will not let you down.

I have similar thoughts about Spoon, though Britt Daniel and his fellow Texans mean a whole lot less to me than Mallonee does. Which is why I am less forgiving when they tread the same ground. It’s been four years since Transference, the band’s very good seventh album, and in that time, they seem to have evolved not one iota. The recently released They Want My Soul is a Spoon album from start to finish, so much like the last few that it’s nearly indistinguishable.

If you’re familiar with the band, you know the style – bass-heavy minimalist rock, a solid groove foundation for Daniel’s ragged voice. In the four years prior to this record, Daniel formed Divine Fits with Dan Boeckner of Wolf Parade, while the other members pursued their own projects, very few of which sounded like Spoon. So the fact that they’ve reunited to do the exact same thing they’ve been doing since the 1990s is a bit of a letdown.

That aside, They Want My Soul is a pretty good Spoon record. “Rent I Pay” makes for a stomping opener, coming on like the Rolling Stones, and while slow burner “Inside Out” slows the momentum, it isn’t fatal. “Rainy Taxi” is exactly the kind of song you want from Spoon, all melancholy tones and propulsive drumming over a simple, kick-ass bass shimmy. I like the synths that shake their way in and out of “Outlier,” “I Just Don’t Understand” brings that Spoon piano in for a 6/8 workout, and closer “New York Kiss” balances its swagger with some subtle, splendid keyboard sounds.

In short, it’s everything you could want from a Spoon album, unless you want something different from every other Spoon album. They’ve established this sound very well, but eight albums in, they’ve shown no sign of significantly building on it. I can’t say I don’t like this record, but I also can’t say it has found its way into my CD player very often. I feel like I’ve heard these songs played this way before. If you’re OK with that, you might enjoy it more than I do. But with this much potential, I want Spoon to start exploring, to start kicking at the bars of their own self-made cage. Consistency can be a trap, and I fear these guys have fallen into it.

Of course, there’s a danger in breaking out of that trap as well. Just ask the Gaslight Anthem, who are racking up some of the worst notices of their career for their fifth album, Get Hurt. Over the previous four, New Jersey’s third-favorite sons established a core sound – Bruce Springsteen sentiments delivered by a working-class punk band – and ran it into the ground. I still responded to that sound, but even I had to admit that by 2012’s Handwritten the band’s songs were starting to blur together.

Enter Get Hurt, an album of sonic experiments and mold-breakers that just… well, isn’t all that good. It’s still the Gaslight Anthem, so it’s palpably earnest and performed with a trunkful of conviction. Which is good, because when you make a record that sounds very little like your past records, you need to sell it in the performances. The band does, no question. And to be fair, the actual differences are often more cosmetic than anything else – most of these are still Gaslight Anthem songs. But you’d be forgiven for checking to make sure you have the right disc when the blistering guitar buzz of “Stay Vicious” begins, complete with a low, growling vocal from Brian Fallon.

You’ll also be thrown by the layered guitars of the almost-funky “1,000 Years,” the pitch-perfect ‘80s reverb-mope of the title track, and the staccato drums and Bryan Adams stylings of “Stray Paper.” The album is chock full of stylistic shifts – “Underneath the Ground” begins with electric piano over slow, ringing chords, while “Helter Skeleton” opens like a radio-rock rager, evolving into something cleaner and prettier. What it’s missing is any sense that this is a natural progression. Get Hurt sounds like a band shaking things up for the sake of it, breaking out of the trap any way they can, and the overwhelming impression it leaves is that they had a good thing, and didn’t know it.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the different places the band goes on this record, and they certainly dive in with both feet. I just don’t think these different suits they’re trying on fit nearly as well as the one they shoved in a closet. Fallon and his bandmates sound like they’re pulling at the sleeves, trying to get more comfortable, and they never quite get there. This is probably an important record for them, but whether it signals a transition or a retrenchment, it’s hard to tell. I admire the Gaslight Anthem for striking out big here, though. It takes guts. But perhaps, like Bill Mallonee and Spoon, they already found what they do best.

Next week, thoughts on Peter Capaldi and Doctor Who. After that, new things by Counting Crows, the New Pornographers, Ryan Adams, Robert Plant and Sloan. Here comes the September flood. Get ready.

Hey, this is my 700th column. Yes, 700. Yes, that boggles my mind too. Thanks to everyone who has stuck with me for all these millions upon millions of words. It’s deeply appreciated.

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See you in line Tuesday morning.