Sometimes it feels like those of us who have fallen between the cracks of the Gen X/Gen Y divide have found a way to embrace nearly every generation’s cheesy popular music but our own. I’ve seen my share of late-twenty- to early-thirty-somethings trumpet the virtues of disco, synth pop, hair metal, all the way up to the present with Ke$ha and Gaga, but just try to turn the subject to Soundgarden or Sponge and you’re likely to be met with a blank stare. And while there’s plenty of reasons to write off the radio rock of the mid-to-late 90s, I can’t help but think that many of us do it because being confronted with a Superdrag album makes us vaguely uncomfortable. The Scorpions were nothing but a band that our skeezy uncle listened to. None of us ever walked around with a Flock of Seagulls hairdo (or if we did, it wasn’t because we actually thought it made us look good). But there’s no ironic distance between us and the 1990s. Candlebox, Everclear, and Bush were right there when our voices changed, when we started to notice hair in strange places, when we had our first nocturnal emission. They were the soundtrack to the most blindingly awkward years of our lives, and we loved them with a passion so pure and uncalculated that it could only have come from someone who just flat-out didn’t know any better.
Yet while many of us have turned a cold shoulder towards what became popularly known as “grunge rock” and its nebulous, bastard offspring “post-grunge,” the music industry moves in cycles, and now that 1990 happened over two decades ago, more than a few young artists have gotten to thinking that the 21st century might just be in need of that old Seattle sludge. Enter: Brighton duo Blood Red Shoes. Guitarist Laura-Mary Carter and drummer Steven Ansell make no bones about their intentions, asserting that the inspiration behind Fire Like This was “to make a record like Nirvana’s In Utero – a rock record with real heart, no macho crap.” Even in the absence of such declarations, it’s not hard to hear the influence of Nirvana on some of the songs here. “Count Me Out” and “One More Empty Chair” pivot upon the quiet verse/LOUD CHORUS dynamics popularized by Cobain, and the backing chant of “heys” on the refrain of “Light It Up” push that song straight into homage territory. These overt evocations of a bygone decade are balanced out by angular dance rock anthems in the vein of Bloc Party, like the kick-drum and hi-hat heavy “Heartsink.” The resulting album gains a measure of variety, then, but it’s the variety that arises from the vacillation between yesterday’s tired trope and today’s.
Despite what might have been the band’s best intentions, it’s pretty hard to make an honest album by Frankensteining together some of the most ubiquitous sounds of contemporary rock. Aside from the basic structural similarities to some of Nirvana’s most popular singles, there is nothing here as confrontational as the self-sabotaging shrieks of feedback lunging against the bars of In Utero’s tightly-constructed pop prisons. Similarly lacking is any real depth or meaning to the lyrics. One of the chief criticisms of grunge and post-grunge was its self-seriousness, its bold claims to earnestness and uncompromising truthfulness that were only seldom played out in the music itself. Like many of their predecessors, Blood Red Shoes pack their songs with a lot of easy phrases that sound defiant, angsty, and introspective on a cursory listen, but are actually fairly trite and meaningless. And frankly, some of the lyrics don’t even hold together on a sentence-level, like Ansell’s repetition of ”Cause it/ Looks like that you’ve got more to learn” on “Don’t Ask.” Maybe profundity is too much to expect out of a pop rock record, but surely basic English syntax isn’t?
Blood Red Shoes sound at their best when they manage to reign in their musical touch points and put them to work in their service. By far the most effective song on here is the mid-album cut “When We Wake.” The duo sets up a nice tension between Carter’s lonely guitar line and Ansell’s galloping drumbeat, and the simple repetition of the lines ”In the end is this all we can ask for?/ Breathing every day and night just waiting/ Broken in pieces” throughout the song lends a gravitas to the words that far exceeds their literal meaning. This is an isolated moment on Fire Like This, though. More often, they seem too content to just regurgitate someone else’s sound, and when they do attempt to put their own stamp on things, like the quote-unquote epic seven-minute album closer “Colours Fade,” the results tend to sputter out without ever really igniting.
The disaffected 12-year-old inside of me is still holding out for that glorious moment when someone nails the grunge rock revival album, producing a work that takes us back to our flannel shirt days, while still offering something new, vital, and relevant. But it’s likely that we’ll need a little more time before that happens. While the 90s may feel like a long time ago, we’ve only just recently crawled out from under Seattle’s shadow, thanks to bands like Creed, Godsmack, Audioslave, and Velvet Revolver. Let’s just let it rest a little while longer, shall we?