SMOKETREE – Smoketree
The Fox Valley area has an uncanny history of producing fine roots-rock bands. This is not in and of itself a revelation; what could be more Midwest than central Wisconsin? Smoketree keeps the tradition alive with their second release, an eponymous album that reflects the values of growing up honest; qualities that are exhibited in their no-frills approach to connecting with the working class.
Smoketree picks up precisely where the Gin Blossoms left off; power-pop sensibilities sharpened with a harder edge. They deliver the punch that the Blossoms wound up. The instrumental arrangements are the most obvious comparison: straight-ahead rock progressions that layer acoustic guitar with overdriven power chords sprinkled with jangly, open-string arpeggios. Other comparisons would include the BoDeans, the Smithereens, and even the dreaded Hootie.
Vocals are the band’s strong suit. Lead guitarist and principal singer Billy Plucker, who writes all the lyrics, sings with an earnest passion, growling at times like the best John Hiatt. This is the quality that separates them from the smoother-sounding vocalists from similar early nineties’ bands. Bassist Jeff Radke and lead guitarist Jack Rein provide strong backing vocals and nail the higher harmonies with conviction. At times Plucker overreaches, tipping the sentimentality scale toward Bono-ism, even going so far as to cover U2’s “All I Want is You”; a brave attempt, but one that comes off as a band from Wisconsin attempting to cover U2. The Gin Blossoms-meets-U2 formula gets taken to the extreme – even in title – on “One”; the arpeggiated guitar EQ-ed to Gin Blossoms perfection while the bass pumps eighth notes.
The album kicks off with “Lift Me Up,” copping the lick from Boston’s “More Than a Feeling.” It’s a tightly arranged rock song that is catchy but ultimately too predictable. The band shows their age a bit with the second track, name-dropping sixties and seventies icons on “When Love Was Such an Angry Thing.” Nearly every track sounds familiar on Smoketree, reminding the listener of songs that you can’t quite put your finger on. This fact and the songs all being in a similar key lend a distinct sameness to the album, the keyboards on the closer “32 Miles” being a notable deviation from standard instrumentation.
This is not to say the album doesn’t sound good – it does. Smoketree was recorded, mixed and mastered by Marc Golde at Rock Garden Studio in Appleton and Golde does a splendid job of capturing the spirit of the band, adding some nice production touches. The standout song on Smoketree is “Story of Your Life,” a finely constructed piece of jangle-rock that benefits greatly from Golde’s contributions on Hammond organ. This is the band at their most expressive, melodic best.
Smoketree are currently in Rock Garden working on an EP that is set for spring release. They are certain to have a bevy of fans that want and expect more of the same but the long-term success of the band probably requires them to deviate from the norm.