“Cleveland Rocks,” they keep telling me, and boy, does it ring true in the local scene. A growing trend is developing, which I like to call ‘Heartland Indie Rock’. Like the cities of Cleveland and Akron where it is being made, the genre places urban driving energy within a short jaunt of rural sensuality.
The analogy is blown open on All Is Harvest’s second full-length album, Ballads And Bangers. It’s all right there in the title: yeah, we’re gonna rock, and then, we’re going to get sentimental, too.
If you’re gonna do this, you gotta have something to offer on both sides of the coin. Ballads And Bangers accomplishes this quite well. Because of the inherent contrasts, what really sells an album like this is mixtape compatibility: are there songs from both camps that I would be willing to suggest to my friends who prefer various flavors?
Yes, they’re both here. On the rock side in particular, the clear lead single “Strange Thing” screams (sometimes literally). The climb from the prechorus into the hook is extremely engaging, and when it gets there, it totally delivers on the hype it has been building. Not only is it memorably catchy, but also short and sweet. I’m a huge fan of Buddy Holly because he did this so well. When I get a Buddy song stuck in my head, I can listen to it on repeat because I didn’t get too much of it on the first go. “Strange Thing” is similarly rewarding to repeated listens, and so a perfect track for a rock mixtape.
And in the ballad aisle? The best one is “Everything You Need”. Opening with intense fragility, it bursts into a singalong chorus and brilliantly employs a horn section. There’s just the right amount of guitar solo, and then singer Mike Lowery gets back to the feels, and pilots the song down from the booming climax.
There’s depth behind these singles, especially on the ‘Bangers’. Notably, “Rich Kids” has a mysterious verse that breaks into an instrumental chorus, where Drew Paramore’s vivid ‘indigo’ lyrics leave room for the angular guitar lead. Steve Deurlein’s stomping drums seal the deal.
And “Dandy Boho,” penned by engineer/producer Alex Madej (of Cellophane Jane), is a campy honkytonk. It’s the most fun and daft moment on the album, with Lowery and Madej trading lead vocals back and forth, a la The Band.
It’s no secret that I’m partial to quick, catchy pop songs, and so the long songs are where I find the most room to criticize. While “Changer” has moving layered instrumentals (xylophone!) that recall Disc 2 of The Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness’ at its finest, the long guitar solo fade is a bit drawn out. While “There For Me” is a pretty country ballad that explores temptation with timidity, perhaps the second harmonica solo is too far; without it, this song could have clocked at 3:35 instead of 4:35, while covering the same ground. A final criticism: the opener, “Rock And Roll Drone,” rips the hook from The Beatles’ “Birthday” almost verbatim. It doesn’t feel like it’s breaking new ground.
Thankfully, All Is Harvest does enough development later on to offset the album’s few weaknesses. The closer, “Vegas,” is a superb example, with an interesting and controversial narrative outlining the story of a gambler in Vegas trying to have a good time, when suddenly the October 2017 shooting unfolds. The character’s motivations- to have a good time and drink and watch strippers- are instantly called into question as existential reality busts in. Musically, the song moves along with its main character. The upbeat atmosphere breaks down into dragging, pensive tension. A genius lyric leads us in: “Ain’t it crazy how a night can change?” It harkens to the best Aerosmith song, “Kings And Queens”. There are siren guitar effects, tastefully done; they’re differentiated enough from real sirens that I don’t slam on the brakes when I’m listening in the car. “Vegas” leaves us on a thoughtful note, logically constructing upon the sociopolitical themes the band previously explored on their ripping non-album single “Fake News Blues”.
As a collection, ‘Ballads And Bangers’ rolls along in classic Album Rock fashion. It swells at the right moments, accenting the relevant thoughts of the authors.