Symptomatic of being at the top, now that Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot has emerged as the one album that nearly everyone can agree on as being a rock classic, every band that follows with a scratchy-voiced vocalist and a steel guitar is going to be placed in line as “the next Wilco.” Add to that list the Damnwells, who despite the presence of a lead vocalist who passes the Jeff Tweedy, “thoughtful guy with cigarette rasp” quality test, really don’t sound all that much like Chicago’s golden boys. At least not yet.
The sound that they have currently arrived at appears to inhabit a region somewhere between Ryan Adams and better-left-unmentioned bands like Matchbox 20 and the Goo Goo Dolls. Of course, they produce nothing as inane as the latter, as their harmonies and textural diversity never come across as pandering, but the mid-tempo slickness of their arrangements can occasionally distract from the stronger elements in the mix. From the listless “H.C.E.” that opens the disc, to the dreamy haze of the almost over-sincere accusations of “Everybody Knows,” the disc spans a series of contrasts that end up being less interesting than they should.
Crooning “Each day you bring me closer to going nowhere,” Alex Dezen wears jaded resignation convincingly, but much more is required to rise above the rather staid ranks of his like-minded ilk. Strangely, when the band does finally get everything to line up most successfully, as with the lonely piano, acoustic strum, and background clatter of “The Trade,” they come closest to making the Wilco accusations stick. However, much variation resides within the seven tracks.
The songs are never quite pushed to the point of being entirely distinctive, as the electronic gurgles that pop up on tracks like “While You Can” ultimately balance any tendencies towards rootsier songcraft. In short, it’s entirely appropriate that the group features a former member of Whiskeytown, yet also toured as Cheap Trick’s opening act.
All in all, the Damnwells give evidence that they’re inching towards something vaguely interesting, and one hopes that the constant drum of Wilco-isms doesn’t distract them from discovering a voice truly their own. PMR + 1 is the story of a band not quite there, too close to modern rock radio to be truly noteworthy, yet far too talented to not rise above the most pedestrian of reasonable comparisons. Whether they do so or not is ultimately up to them.
Written by Matt Fink.