A band can have several plans of attack in mind when naming itself after a disaster. It could be a heavy metal, “We’re going to rock you like a hurricane!” kind of thing; an ironic, owning-your-own-terribleness kind of thing; or in the case of Rammstein, a little bit of both. I don’t know what kind of grand statement drummer Marshall Verdoes was trying to make when he named his group after two disasters, but since he’s 13 years old, his reasons are surely impeachable.
The back story on The Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band is definitely intriguing: Singer/guitarist Benjamin Verdoes promised his younger brother Marshall that if he practiced his drums, someday they’d form a band together and Marshall could name it. The kid practiced and big bro made good on the offer. Whether it was the wacky name, the back story, or the fact that the group drew musicians from other popular Seattle-area bands, TMSHVB managed to attract a lot of buzz early, getting featured on Stereogum before they’d even played a show, and Spin soon after.
Their eponymous first album, however, deserves some attention for its own spiky yet melodic rock merits. The band borrows heavily from other quirky and sinewy indie rock bands from places with bad weather, like Wolf Parade and Modest Mouse, but on their first album TMSHVB manages to carve out their own distinctive niche.
The record isn’t without a few telltale signs of a debut: There’s “A Year or Two,” the song smack in the middle that starts out pretty and snoozy and picks up the end, and the closer “On the Collar,” which brings in the inevitable strings. But there are also unexpected surprises along the way. The album opens with a haunting harmony backed by a frazzled guitar on “Who’s Asking.” That song, about the push and pull of a relationship, toggles back and forth between staccato verses and a “Wolf like Me” style chorus. The next song, “Masquerade” starts off like a classic Seattle hard rocker, but the chorus shifts into a carnival calliope, with bassist Jared Price and percussion and keyboardist (and wife to the elder Verdoes) Traci Eggleston la-di-da-ing in the background.
The guitar work on TMSHVB is split between Benjamin Verdoes and Matthew Dammer. That—and young Marshall’s drumming—are what largely what help the band find their own identity. Verdoes has a distinct voice, but it’s distinct in same way so many indie rock singers voices are, namely that while its not exactly bad, it’s not exactly good. It’s that broken vocal chord kind of voice that fans of Wolf Parade and Bishop Allen love, but tends to turn off the casual listener.
The guitar work straddles that line between metal and punk that so many Seattle bands mined for in millions in the early nineties, but TMSHVB’s version sounds fresh. It’s what shifts the tone of the songs and ultimately the album itself, from the melancholy “Cheer for Fate” to the surging “Anchors Dropped” to the grungy hard rock of “Albatross, Albatross, Albatross.”
The band got lucky in its co-producer Scott Colburn, who’s also worked with the Arcade Fire and Animal Collective. Whether it’s him or TMSHVB themselves who brought so much out of the debut has yet to be seen. As politicians like to say when the economy comes up, disaster can breed opportunity. Maybe that’s what Marshall Verdoes was getting at.
MP3: “Anchors Dropped”