The St. Louis based indie rock outfit Traveling Sound Machine play an upbeat sounding brand of pop-infused rock that is layered with spectral harmonies and reverent melodies that stretch the very limits of what it means to be a rock band on their second release The Time We Were Almost Swallowed by the Earth. Its players, vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Steven Lickenbrock, bassist/vocalist Dave Anson, trumpet player Chris Kepley, drummer Steve Larson, and guitarist Josh Grogan, have made an album that is on the surface, fun and fancy, but below that surface, in the lyrics are themes of depression and the dealings with of those feelings.
The record opens with “Paper Thin Skin” an upbeat rocker that’s lightly trickled with reverb and has hooks that keep the listener going. Its sort of a cross between Sparklehorse and Mercury Rev, in the way that the music sounds just poppy and strange enough to be written off as radio friendly. But beneath the surface their lurks a disruptive drowsiness that sets in as the songs meander along. Lyrics such as “you’ll never get your body back” and “When you had a body / Did you have many plans,” are strikingly dire. This continues to even deeper depths on the slow going “Perfect World/Welcome to Never Again” where the trumpet sounds like it’s the last one, being blown by angels calling a soul back home, and the addition of a female vocalist helps to add to that melancholy that the song suffuses.
Later on the dire yet powerful “Re: Perfect World” Lickenbrock’s vocals sound strained, almost as though he has finally broken down. It is the voice of a man who has been yelling and crying and is now emptied of everything. It’s a powerful moment on the record. After that, he seems closer to knowing what it is he’s working towards, as on “Distance” as he relents, “I feel like a spider with a ruined web / I have to start over / I’ll try to make this the best one yet / And I know that I can’t skip any steps / I need to find closure / I’m searching for ways to finally forget.” By the closing song, a wallop at seven minutes though its orchestration and slow building is worth every second, Lickenbrock’s power has seemingly returned yet his lyrics remain dark. Yet the last line “please don’t run me off the road” seems to suggest that he is trying to find his way back to something, at least a starting point of sorts.
For as haunting and quietly depressing as The Time We Were Almost Swallowed by the Earth is at times, it’s still an album that gives just as much as it asks for. The backing band and vocalists offer a great support system here and help to keep the record from becoming a one- man show.
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