It seems every ten or twenty years, there’s a feeling that rock music has gotten too bombastic and bloated, and everyone yearns for it to get back to its rhythm & blues roots. That’s what The Ramones were attempting in late `70s, and Nirvana was arguably an heir apparent in the early `90s. Wallpaper, a K Records three-piece from outside Tacoma, Wash., must also feel it’s that time again. Their first album, On the Chewing Gum Ground, is full of herky-jerky rhythms and hand claps reminiscent of early Rolling Stones, paired with sneering vocals that bring the sound into the 21st century.
The result, however, is closer to rock `n roll’s roots than the boys in Wallpaper may have intended. Ritchie Valens and Carl Perkins had some great tunes, but anyone who’s ever listened to an entire collection of those and similar artists knows that after four or five tracks, the sound begins a weary repetition. There’s just only so many places you can go within the genre. The Ramones were a success because they ended up creating something new in the process. Wallpaper adheres too closely for their own good.
The band bills itself as “want[ing] to get people excited about rock `n roll, not bored by post-post-post movements,” and individually, many of On the Chewing Gum Ground‘s songs accomplish this. The slip-sliding chorus of opener “Rock Collage” makes you want to learn how to do the stroll. “Auto Bop” brings to mind a murkier, garage band version of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” These are good things. But as the album progresses, the persistent down strokes and 4/4 time of each song makes them weigh on each other; the flashes of fun are swallowed by the echoing similarity of the tracks that follow.
The album comes to life the few times it breaks the monotony by borrowing heavily from mid-90s indie acts like Pavement rather than jukebox mainstays of the ’50s. Songs like “Shag Carpet,” “New California” and “Totalled” use feedback as an instrument and surreal vocals, while still pounding out danceable rhythms. This lends itself to a more authentic sound; like kids listening to oldies, through the filter of decades of modern rock. In other words, it sounds more like what’s probably going on in the heads of bandmates Derek and Spencer Kelley and Steven Potter, who share the musical assignments of Wallpaper.
It’s nearly impossible to listen to Wallpaper without thinking of the doomed Portland band The Exploding Hearts, who released two full-length albums before three members tragically died in a van accident in 2003. The Exploding Hearts had some of the same redundancy troubles as Wallpaper, but their energetic songs managed to take on a life of their own, rather than serving as slaves to their influence.
Such is the plight of most young bands: attempting to meld influences into a cohesive and unique sound. On the Chewing Gum Ground‘s closing track “Rock & Roll World,” for example, gives a verbal shout-out to Ringo, John, George and Paul, but the song itself is more homage to Rivers, sounding a lot like Weezer’s plaintive rockers “Only in Dreams” and “Across the Sea.” Finding a way to reconcile the desire to play juke joint rhythm and blues with an alt-rock radio reconfiguration is a worthy endeavor. Let’s see if Wallpaper can overcome these overbearing hurdles on album #2.