Friday, August 15, 2008

Terminal Romance - Matt Mays & El Torpedo

Terminal Romance

Matt Mays and El Torpedo
Sonic Records.

SCQ Rating: 73%

“Sophomore Slump? Not bloody likely!” claims a press release that begs a moment’s consideration. Yes, this is El Torpedo’s second album on the bill, but it’s Mays fourth album (excluding his time with the Guthries) and as the principle songwriter, Mays knows any “sophomore” pressure is just another angle for hype. It works… especially when you have a first single as deliciously melodic and heavy as ‘Tall Trees’ to back up any underdog propaganda.

All the same, Terminal Romance distances itself from the band's 2005 debut. El Torpedo was defined not simply by meat and potatoes rock, but by storytelling the lives of characters who struggled to sort through love and loss in the city of lakes. From an interfered romance with a tennis-pro heroine to the summer couple in denial of a looming September, El Torpedo was undoubtedly the vision of Mays alone, albeit with a stronger backing band presence. On the other hand, Terminal Romance feels like part of Mays’ diagesis; the record playing over every bar booth where his protagonists sit, pushing back their liquid courage. Yes, its muscular guitars are high and heavy in the mix, giving 'Northern Belle' power in its chords and 'The Hunter, The Hunted' a swirl of mid-90s Tragically Hip tension, but this straight focus on rawking out warrants Terminal Romance as soundtrack material to a night out but sells Mays countless talents short.

Interestingly enough, this is the first Matt Mays album to abstain from included lyrics, and equally curious is how its liner notes fail to outline who wrote what songs. So what are we to assume: did Mays relinquish his captain’s chair for the sake of a group effort, or is Mays beginning to write on cruise control? In either case, the second half of Terminal Romance presents a band content to dwindle in the transposable wasteland of CanCon could’ve-beens; a slap in the face to the record’s first half that seemed destined for greatness. The cause of these misfires might be Mays on-sleeve love for classic rock - a style he reworked with style on El Torpedo - which finds some latter songs burdened by how much it has borrowed. Take 'Stand and Deliver', a tune so well measured to Tom Petty-territory that Mays should've considered the icon's litigious streak before including it here, or 'Laser Guided Love', a song so fascinated by its aw-shucks love with a stranger that Mays forgets to write real lyrics or give the melody some originality. Such drastic cuts to quality control, when compared to any of Mays previous material, is worrisome; is El Torpedo now his classic rock escape, a sidelining decision to afford his solo work more avenues? Or has Mays impressive pace of releasing records slowly caught up to him and found his songbook empty?

Enough about those three or four songs; they're OK, really, in fact I've grown to like them - just not because they're very good. If I sound like I'm too hard on Mays, it's because Terminal Romance started as a powerhouse record; the kind of breakthrough hit Canada wants a Canadian rocker to have right now. 'Building a Boat' launches forward with an excited Mays and his band rocking to their own sound, jumping out of line instead of playing single file, before bowing out to four following songs that are each excellent. 'Digital Eyes' has an 80s guitar band feel that brings to mind Ryan Adams circa 2003, 'Tall Trees' is nearly impossible to shake from your brain once it gets in. And thankfully, proving how varied the first half of this record is to the second half, Mays gives the work of his idols a personal spin to great success on 'Rock Ranger Record', a no-hold-bars Ramones zinger, and the title track, an epic that evokes Springsteen and the E-Street Band and steals the album with an exhaustingly awesome climax. More than anything else here, 'Terminal Romance' reminds us what Mays is capable of; a vocal chord-shredding ballad that outclasses his fellow Can-Rock colleagues (cough, Sam Roberts, cough). And that's why I'm torn over this album, because he has managed to outclass himself.

When the Angels Make Contact, his last solo album, was based on Mays idea of making a record that began at sunset and closed at first light. By the time ‘Long Since Gone’s chorus closes, a sweet, pedal steel farewell to a sunset, I have to ponder where Mays’ next step lies: as bar band leader or solo trombadour. As Terminal Romance suggests, Mays can pull off one role but shines brighter in the other.

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