Reviewed by Brett Thorne.
Howard Hamilton and Laura Bennett, the duo that comprises Minneapolis’ Red Pens, recorded their debut album in the living room of the apartment they share. Hamilton manned the mixing board and while the album certainly doesn’t sound like a Nigel Godrich affair, the lo-fi quality is quite charming and one of the most prominent features of the album.
Hamilton and Bennett have been showered with local awards in their hometown and with Reasons (Grain Belt Records), the duo is looking to make a splash outside the Twin Cities. Bennett has said the album is semi-autobiographical and is about “fighting the odds of people saying you can’t be an artist or musician for a living, and I’m like ‘I’ll show you. I’m gonna try.'” Deep stuff. Fortunately the silver-tongued Bennett, like, doesn’t write the lyrics.
The album opens with “Hung Out,” a fuzzed-out garage rocker. This is a pretty good indicator of the noise listeners are going to find throughout the album. Steady drums back up guitars that would make even the most dedicated garage rocker think about turning down the Fuzz Factory. Hamilton’s vocals are drenched in reverb and bring to mind a Beatles-inspired acid trip like “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” In spite of the the walls of fuzz, the song’s catchy melody occasionally surfaces to get some air.
“Children and the Kids” gives listeners a nice break from the full-speed-ahead rock of the first few tracks. The verses switch between palm-muted bar chords and full on windmill strums while Hamilton’s vocals straddle the line between shriek and croon as he “oohs” and “ahhs” before the whole thing spirals into a mess of feedback and one last shout-along chorus. The band continues the aggressive, string-bending, stick-breaking attack but in a dialed back manner that gives some glimmer of dynamics. Still, calling this song light in comparison to the other tracks is like being the most manly member of Hanson. It’s all relative.
“Blue Lighters” is one of the brightest spots on the album. The song starts with (surprise!) layers of crunchy guitar building behind what sounds like a reel to reel machine. At the 0:30 mark, Hamilton’s guitar melody comes in and displays his knack for writing arresting and thought-provoking guitar hooks.
Red Pens are at their best when they remove that fifth layer of fuzz. Songs like “Children and the Kids,” the soporific “Weekdays” and “Phase You Out” hint at the dynamic this album is thoroughly lacking. The band clearly have the songwriting chops to make incredible music, but as long as they’re drowned in a mire of fuzz (which might simply be a byproduct of the D.I.Y. recording), it’s hard to differentiate one song from the last. Then again this is not Eisley. This duo is not trying to make the soundtrack to your most recent break-up. This album is full of fist-pumping party music and if listeners are expecting that, and not much else, they will probably come away satisfied.
Red River rating: 6 out of 10