Skiptrace – Weather & Oil

Weather & Oil

Skiptrace isn’t the most inspiring band you’ll ever hear, or the most original. Heavily indebted to the grandiosity of emo with guitars seesawing between clean and dirty, the sound is always major-key and sunny, sometimes winsome, but never menacing even when loud. Scott Sellwood’s high, nasal croon frequently threatens to enter a painful realm of sincerity, but just when you brace yourself for an unbearable yelp of earnestness, he responds with a rousing hook instead. It happened enough times during the course of Weather & Oil for me to lower my defenses (automatically deployed at the first hint of emo formlessness), accept the familiarity and enjoy an unexpected surprise.

Granted I’m a bourgeois slob, and all it takes is a catchy melody to whore me out. If you need more than that – like a listening experience that challenges all your conventional beliefs, that refuses to conform – then walk on, brother. Skiptrace is just your good old-fashioned neighborhood indie band that learned the little tricks practiced by the heartfelt bands the musicians loved as kids, the tricks that resulted in songs you could sing along to while getting beaten up for singing along. But like I said – and maybe it’s the diminished expectations thing – where I was expecting little, Skiptrace gave more.

As soon as that elfin voice appeared 15 seconds into “Telling Stories,” I thought, “Oh shit, it sounds like the guy from Dashboard Confessional”; you know – pleading high-pitched doormat whose nerve-wracking voice dooms any song unlucky enough to support it. But then the rest of the band kicks in, the melody takes form, and the apprehension is defused. Two minutes in, the apprehension returns when the song takes a turn for the pointless with a slowed-down middle that segues into an unnecessary post-middle, neither of which were as good as the beginning, and I wonder: Is this how it’s going to be? Flashes of competence undone by poor song planning? Well no, for the most part. Which isn’t to say the band couldn’t use a little pruning, but the musicians don’t wander too long before coalescing back into a dramatic moment that has you reaching for the turn-it-up button.

Most of Weather & Oil’s tunes force the listener to fight the same fight, basically: Recoil at the hint of shrill emoting/return when the emoting results in a big, fat hook. Feel bad for listening to an emo record/deal with it because huge choruses rule and emo bands aren’t afraid to deliver. The piano-based “Masking Agent” may skew the paradigm a bit, its best moment coming when the brash verse morphs into a more restrained chorus, but the paradigm-skewing is most pronounced in the subtle “Grey by Default.” This little tune, built on a delicate guitar figure, is short and sweet, betraying the pop-ability that is ultimately at the heart of what makes Skiptrace successful.

It’s a modest success, mind you. Not crucial, not anything to mourn should it escape the gravity of your CD collection, but in this vast universe there has to be a place for a band like Skiptrace somewhere, doesn’t there?