Back when I was listening to what was then dubbed `college radio’ back in the early ’90s, all of the bands I listened to seemed so distinctly different than one another. I could alternately spin U2, Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, Depeche Mode, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana, and other Lollapalooza-bound acts and feel like I was `eclectic.’ Upon listening to Los Angeles’ Mellowdrone, I have to amend those feelings, as it seems that every single band ended up fueling the fire that was eventually to be Box, the long-awaited debut album from the ready for prime-time band on the verge of super stardom. This album sounds so perfectly put together and accomplished that it seems as though it could be the band’s fourth album, and it should sound like that considering it’s about three years in the making and was guided by Tony Berg, the accomplished producer of such ’90s mainstays as Michael Penn, Aimee Mann, Squeeze and X.
Frontman Jonathan Bates’ voice is like cotton, and by that I don’t mean cottonmouth, I mean it’s the `fabric of our lives.’ At times stretching his pipes like Bono, at others emitting a low drawl like Peter Murphy, and still others mixing all of the pitches like Thom Yorke or Matt Bellamy, Bates’ voice is sheer perfection, making each listener delve back into their own memory. Bates is essentially the entire band, but in order to tour and market themselves as a `band,’ Mellowdrone added three new members. There’s guitarist Tony DeMatteo whose guitars can either crunch like a car compactor with a semi in its jaws or lilt like dandelion spears floating on the wind. There’s hottie Cami Gutierrez who plays the `Mode’ style keys and the thundering bass with panache. And finally, there’s Brian Borg who provides live drums to match the electronics in the album. But like a similar artist, one Trent Reznor, when you say the name of the band, you are really pronouncing the name of the singular artist behind the songwriting and arrangements.
There’s definitely enough band references to throw around while listening to Box besides the ones listed above, but suffice it to say the easiest way to sum up the feel of most of the album is to say that Mellowdrone rocks like a three-headed hydra. It’s muscular guitar rock, poppy new wave synth and anthemic vocal flexibility all at the same time. “C’mon Try a Little Bit” acts as an introduction to the dark textures within the rest of the album with whispered vocals alongside falsetto `ooh’s’ that recall such acts as the Machines of Loving Grace. “Oh My” is the first single and sounds as though U2 recorded “Beautiful Day” back in their Pop days. “Four Leaf Clover” is a strut worthy iPod mainstay, sure to make you bounce along your walk to work. Although there are thirteen tracks in all, nine of them brand spanking new, it is the songs that appeared previously on EP’s that truly shine. “Fashionably Uninvited” is the first of those older tracks, alternately danceable and grandiose. How this song didn’t blanket the airwaves upon its initial release I’ll never know, but it nearly overshadows the rest of the album.
“Beautiful Day,” not having anything to do with the previously mentioned U2 song, is another EP track that stands out in the crowd. “And Repeat” and “Bone Marrow” are the other encore performances and again, among the best on the album, the latter another soaring anthemic masterpiece with Bates’ stunning voice making it an instant hit. Among the new songs, “Fuck it Man” shares some common ground with some of the Eels’ work, another one-man-band who doesn’t mind throwing in some swearing though it might limit his radio play. “Orange Marmalade” is a loping love song with loads of charm that will sure to become a live favorite. “Limb to Limb” is an absolute gem, with more than one nod to Radiohead tracks from both The Bends and OK Computer, not to mention backing vocals that resemble TV on the Radio.
Although it took three years for Jonathan Bates’ music to get a major label deal and wide distribution, the wait now seems worth it as Box is a stunning achievement. It’s hard enough for four people to make this kind of arena filling sound, but Bates did most of it all by his lonesome. The one downside is that Mellowdrone could easily end up as one of those bands that get so much attention (read: Coldplay) that there is a massive backlash. Believe me, there are worse things.
Nine Inch Nails- Pretty Hate Machine
Radiohead- The Bends
Depeche Mode- Music for the Masses