There are some bands that are completely defined by one member, usually by the most vocal member — the vocalist. Everyone else in the band could leave (and sometimes they actually do) and it wouldn’t really matter. The Cure is Robert Smith. Nine Inch Nails, as he famously said in the liner notes of Pretty Hate Machine, is Trent Reznor. Stiffed is lead vocalist Santi White. This is White’s domain. Without her incredible voice, Stiffed is just another rock band with pop-punk leanings.
Pop-punk is such an ugly term, made ugly by hordes of Ramones wannabes who have taken the three chords or less aesthetic and used it as an excuse to suck. Stiffed should not be relegated into the bargain bin with these three-chord amateurs, though. White’s voice transforms these relatively simple songs into more complex creations. She jumps from a Gwen Stefani whimper to a child-like Mirah swoon to whatever H.R. from Bad Brains singing can be classified as, effortlessly. She can be an angry punk spitting out acid jibes and a moaning sex kitten all in one breath. But it’s not just song-to-song in which White changes her vocal approach. Each song can showcases any number of White’s styles. But, like her influences, some of the voices that White adopts are more compelling than others. Does the world of pop music need another Gwen Stefani-like whiner when there are far too few singers, male or female, who can match Debbie Harry’s sensual croon? To White’s credit, though, she never sounds like she’s blantantly ripping off her respective influences. She completely makes each voice her own.
Along with White’s vocal influence-hopping, each song on Burned Again seems to inhabit a different part of the pop music spectrum, albeit sometimes a very narrow spectrum to create utterly danceable pop music. “Like an Itch” has robot rock vocals with crazy synths and hand claps! Freakin’ hand claps people! “Your Voice” is an incredibly sexy Police-style reggae song with a bite that No Doubt just couldn’t capture on their own (White has no need for Lady Saw to give her street cred, she’s good enough on her own). “No New York” is total pop punk sung with a Chrissie Hynde sneer. But much like White’s appropriation of vocal stylings, Stiffed flows into each genre rather naturally, not like they are taking on a certain type of music because it’s what’s hot right now. For example, while boys wearing a lot of eyeliner clamor to be the next Duran Duran clones, Stiffed’s take on New Wave is seemingly different. They don’t push the New Wave elements of Burned Again onto the listener, allowing the angular guitars and keyboards to become natural parts of the music. Instead of screaming, “Hey, look at us! We like the 80s too!!” Sitffed instead sneers, “Yeah, we like New Wave, what are you gonna do about it?”
Bad Brains’ bassist Daryl Jennifer produced Burned Again and his sound is all over the album. From loud, fast punk rock spurts on songs like “What It’s Like” to the heavy basslines on songs like “A Day Without Andrew,” Jennifer’s production augments White’s inherent sexiness giving the album a decidedly funky feel. “What It’s Like” even sounds like a Bad Brains outtake if H.R. brought in his kid sister in to do the vocals one day. Jennifer’s one failure as a producer is not allowing the band to flex their instrumental muscle. Many songs on Burned Again end too early, demonstrating that Stiffed aren’t yet mature songwriters. Just as the groove gets going, the song is over, leaving the listener wanting more. My reasoning for my above sentiment that White is Stiffed is that the rest of the band isn’t given any room to move and they, subsequently, come off as rather average. The band as a whole seems quite adept at writing catchy pop songs and it would be nice to hear a little more from them. Throw them a bone, give them a bridge, a solo, something to show that Stiffed is, in fact, anything but typical without White.
Burned Again is a pretty good debut LP, showing that the “Band to Watch” status they received after their EP Sex Sells was a well-deserved moniker. But, when it all comes down to it, Burned Again is still a freshman album from a young band and Stiffed needs to grow as songwriters before they can truly become a great band. But whether Stiffed mature as songwriters or not isn’t really your problem at the moment. Go find Burned Again and dance `til your little heart’s content.