1. Simon Magus (6:23)
2. Diamondized (6:33)
3. The Night I Killed Steve Shelley (9:07)
4. Royal Oil Can (5:15)
5. Out of the Oceans (7:17)
6. He is Like a Spider (6:20)
7. Nuclear Density Gauge (7:21)
8. Tumbleweeds (4:09)
9. Astro (11:30)
Patrick McGowan – vocals, guitar
Dan McGowan – vocals, guitar
Kyle Minnick – drums
Becky Osenenko – bass
Tom Brislin – keyboards
In 2008, New Jersey-based trio The Tea Club’s debut release made waves on the progressive rock scene, and sparked a lot of interest in this youthful new band. A completely self-produced effort, General Winter’s Secret Museum brimmed with freshness, enthusiasm and not inconsiderable chops. Moreover – most important in this age of manufactured, cookie-cutter musical outfits – it sounded original, not sporting its influences too openly. The Tea Club were at the forefront of the new generation of ‘crossover’ progressive rock bands, fuelled by the raw energy of post-punk and indie/alternative rock, with an eye to melody and another to complexity – a power trio for the new millennium, with enough quirkiness and intricacy to appeal to the old-school set, and contemporary-sounding enough to make headway with the younger fans.
It is no wonder, therefore, that the release of Rabbit, the band’s sophomore effort, was eagerly awaited in prog circles. Due to their ideal location right in the middle of the ‘prog hub’ of the US Northeast (the main subject of the documentary film Romantic Warriors), they have been able to gain a loyal following, as well as the opportunity to increase their visibility by playing relatively frequent live shows. Unlike other bands of recent formation, they have never suffered from overhype, and still retain an endearingly down-to-earth attitude. On the other hand, Rabbit comes across as a clearly more ambitious project that its somewhat stripped-down predecessor. With the basic lineup augmented by bassist Becky Osenenko, longer track times (including a couple of almost epic-length numbers) and the unobtrusive but constant presence of the keyboards (manned by an experienced musician such as Tom Brislin, known for his associations with the likes of Yes and Renaissance), the albums marks a shift away from General Winter’s… immediate, hard-rocking impact into more nuanced modern prog territories.
This time around,The Tea Club are a tad less restrained about letting their sources of inspiration show – though this does by no means spell derivativeness. The band occasionally sound like a toned-down version of The Mars Volta, an impression compounded by the McGowan brothers’ high-pitched vocals – even though they go for a distinctly more melodic approach than Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s occasionally abrasive tones. There actually are some numbers that bring to mind the generally low-key mood of Octahedron, the Volta’s latest release. The first two songs, “Simon Magus” and “Diamondized”, are both sophisticated, well-constructed numbers, the former with a more dramatic edge, the second relying on atmosphere rather than power. Indeed, Rabbit’s most remarkable distinguishing feature is its slower pacing, seemingly light years removed from General Winter’s… exhilarating urgency. Its reflective, somewhat attenuated mood cannot but bring to mind the haunting atmospheres created by bands like Radiohead and The Pineapple Thief. A song like the 9-minute “The Night I Killed Steve Shelley” (one of the undisputed highlights of the album) seems to bring together the two strains of the band’s creative impulse, alternating understated, almost meditative, moments with bursts of intensity driven by fat bass chords, eerie keyboard effecs and high-energy riffing.
True to their new direction, The Tea Club also throw a couple of slow-burners into the mix – namely the muted, mesmerizing “Royal Oil Can”, with its solemn drumming and tinkling guitars, and the gentle, percussion-less “Tumbleweeds”, reminiscent of Radiohead circa OK Computer. While the closing epic “Astro”, in my view, is not a completely successful endeavour, reproducing in some way the stop-start structure of “…Steve Shelley” (though featuring a nice instrumental section with one of the rare guitar solos on the album, as well as assertive keyboard touches and commanding vocals), Rabbit’s real highlight lies in the powerful “Nuclear Density Gauge”, a kind of mellower yet subtly menacing version of a Mars Volta number spiced by jagged drum patterns, neat bass lines and haunting vocal exchanges.
Although I suspect Rabbit is one of those albums that will slowly but relentlessly grow on me, I also have to admit that, at least on the first couple of listens, it did not grip me in the same way as General Winter’ Secret Museum. As a whole, the album seems to lack the ‘peaks and valleys’ that made its predecessor such a compelling effort, and sometimes the tracks seem to blur into each other. I also found the ubiquitous vocalizing a tad off-putting, as if it deprived the music of some much-needed energy. Personally speaking, I would be glad to see The Tea Club adopt a more ‘back to basics’ approach for their next release, recapturing some of the edginess and vitality of their debut and blending it with their newfound sophistication. However, in spite of these shortcomings, Rabbit is undeniably a lovingly-crafted effort from a band that oozes potential. With a striking cover in gorgeous hues of blue and green (courtesy of Kendra DeSimone), the McGowan brothers’ own quirky artwork gracing the booklet, and intriguing, thought-provoking lyrics, it offers a complete package in the finest progressive rock tradition.