By Mike Faloon
Another summer, another new Black Wine record. A fan of poppy punk rock could get mighty used to such things. Though it sounds little like past albums, Hollow Earth, the band’s third record, is excellent. Certainly the most consistent, perhaps their best.
Here’s a theory. It belongs to Jeff Schroeck, Black Wine’s guitarist. The band’s first album sounded kind of like the band members’ previous bands (Hunchback, Ergs). The second record, a wildly diverse collection, is a reaction to the debut, a move away from sounding like those previous bands. Hollow Earth sounds like Black Wine. It’s not a reaction to old bands as much as it’s embracing this band.
I hear what he’s saying; I agree and I’d add this: Hollow Earth takes the poppiest moments from the first two albums, polishes the production, and includes just enough unexpected moves, musically and lyrically.
Hollow Earth is, on the exterior, a 10-song, 26-minute blast of early ‘90s alt rock—super catchy, radio-friendly, and immensely enjoyable. That might be construed as a backhanded compliment. It’s not intended as such. A lot of bands from that era tripped and fell when sweetening their sounds. But a few managed to make alterations that led to albums that were both more accessible and better. Take the Breeders, for example. Their 4AD debut, Pod, was a fine record, but it paled compared to Last Splash, and I’d argue that Last Splash owes as much to its kick ass sound/production as it does the writing and performances.
I think Hollow Earth is Black Wine’s Last Splash. Kind of. Here’s why I think the comparison works. The vocals are cleaner, higher, sweet without stumbling into glossy. The guitars are thicker, punchier. And the hooks, forget about it. They’re relentless. Every tune (save the subtle “Blurry”) jumps right into a bit that would leap off the radio, but with enough subsequent twists and turns that I keep going back for repeated listens. Typically, I’m skeptical, if not scornful, of records that have anything remotely “brass ring”y about them, but the exceptions can be awesome. (The exceptions tend to radiate a sense of a band having fun, making a record that, first and foremost, pleases them and their friends.)
Here’s why I qualify my Hollow Earth/Last Splash comparison: Black Wine’s lyrics; they never go from A to B. They’re more likely to start at M, dash over to 3, before winding up at L. Or some such. I like it when lyrics veer off in unexpected directions. It’s like revisiting vintage Rush or Atlantic-era Yes and King Crimson records but with sonics more akin to Kim Deal (or Billie Joe Armstrong or Rivers Cuomo, for that matter).
The opening cut, “Flatland,” had me hoping there was a concept record buried here: “And when your sides make a circle/You’re the boss of the scalene pawns.” Scalene pawns? Hello, Neil Peart. There’s an “alien land” in “Fence” and “Hollow Earth” has “a paradise underneath the shell” with “a tunnel to the inside.” I couldn’t find a narrative, but at the very least there’s a vague sense of elsewhere, without the sense that the band is trying to be difficult.
Even the songs that seem direct and straight forward have at least one bend in them. The chorus to “Burlap” couldn’t be more direct: “And I love you/Yeah I love you/Oh how I love you.” Then comes the second verse: “I had a baby when I was sixteen/I dreamed it was yours.” Not something that’ll have the program director at Z100 asking for a stack of promo copies to give out at Jones Beach, but that’s his loss.
On the flipside of the lyric sheet, Black Wine endorse “no-core,” the “avoidance of stereotyping,” an earnest call to follow your instincts. Black Wine practices what they preach. As much as I enjoy this record, I have to recognize that it’s just as likely as not that their next record will ditch a lot of what makes Hollow Earth click so well and head off in a different direction. I look forward to finding out.