RubberStamp – Liquid

 RubberStamp – Liquid

RubberStamp – Liquid – Album Review

So let’s see what we’ve got here…from what I understand, RubberStamp is one of them all-star collaborations from the underground Indie scene, connected to us here at sleepingbagstudios through none other than Gary Blake, whom y’all probably remember from his work in Neon Radiation.  Always a reliable source of quality tunes – you can instantly hear the professionalism in the production of “Peng Fever” as this second record from RubberStamp gets underway.  As far as I know, it’s not due out for more than half a year from now…so I guess take everything I’m saying with the ol’ proverbial grain of salt knowing that a half a year in the music realm is equivalent to seven full lifetimes and just about anything/everything could change between now and then!  Anyhow.  I really dig what I’m hearing at the start with “Peng Fever” – the beat is freakin’ fantastic, the additional electro-based elements in the music are a perfect fit, as is the featured guest in singer Sheddie, who brings a cross-cultural vibe to the song & vivid lyricism you can see in your mind as the music flows around ya.  They’re off to a great start.  It’s actually somewhat of an understated & subtle tune for as fast-paced as it seems, but in my opinion, the hooks they’ve created to fuel the chorus of this first song truly make a sonically memorable impact.

All-in-all, you’ll find great energy in the music of cuts like “Peng Fever” and the second song “Dizzy Heights” as Liquid begins to open up – it’s clear these guys all came to play.  Gary from Neon Radiation is joined by Dave McFarlane (aka DrJkl) and Chris Gotchy (aka gotchy) as the primary members you’ll find in RubberStamp, and then of course you’ll find an array of featured guests appearing as the lineup of songs progresses.  Sheddie makes a back-to-back appearance at the start of Liquid, bringing balance to the mic on the first two tracks you’ll hear.  Neither really has the edge if you ask me – I really like what I found in both “Peng Fever” and “Dizzy Heights” overall.  I suppose if I was forced to choose one of’em as the single I might lean slightly towards “Dizzy Heights” because I feel like the music is that much more dynamic and perhaps stands out just a little bit more by comparison, but make no mistake, both tracks are great and I’m stoked on what a seamless fit Sheddie seems to be with the band.  In terms of what you’ll hear in “Dizzy Heights,” it might also be a good choice to put out there as an advance single because of its inherently rubbery vibe goin’ on…call me crazy, but that seems like solid representation for a band called RubberStamp, ain’t it?  The music is riotously addictive, upbeat & wildly energetic, and it’s actually quite remarkable that Sheddie is such a perfect fit considering he’s got such a laidback style.

“Secrets And Lies” features the second guest-star in the lineup on the third track, as Manuela makes an instant impression with the sweetness of her vocals.  In my opinion, as great as the core combination of main members in RubberStamp clearly are, a lot of their success is genuinely going to come down to the featured guests they bring into the mix, know what I mean?  I don’t know if I’d really go as far as to say there’s a whole lot we haven’t somewhat heard in the music in some way, shape, or form – that’s not really where the differences are being established, though notably, the professionalism and attention to detail are completely present at all times.  It’s when you hear a voice with uniqueness like Sheddie that ties everything together, or the angelic brightness that a singer like Manuela can add to a tune like “Secrets And Lies” – that’s where the average everyday listener is going to hear distinguishable differences being made and tangible identity within each song.  I think “Secrets And Lies” is a good track – and I can’t think of anything I’d really recommend changing in it based on what I hear.  It also has a bit of a familiar feeling to it in the sense that we’ve all encountered similar vibes out there to some degree, but at the same time, a well done song is exactly that, and this team of all-stars brings their A-game to it.

They’ve got a lot of really good D&B-influenced tunes goin’ on here throughout this record, and their choices for featured guests have greatly contributed.  You meet the third voice on the album through the fourth song called “Endless Nights,” which has INERT on the vocals to keep ya entertained.  Success is achieved as far as my ears are concerned – it’s another quality cut from Liquid for sure.  Again, I think it’s fair to say that you’ll have heard similar material out there in your travels somewhere along the line, but that’s fairly true of most music being made in some capacity.  All you can ever really control is what you put into what you do, and as long as you’re ensuring the quality is there, you’re in great shape.  “Endless Nights” is an engaging tune, well-structured to deliver through its dynamics…I can’t really see anyone out there having substantial complaints about anything they hear.  This track is movin’ at a rapid pace, and it’s fully designed to keep your attention affixed to its every twist & turn – no notes from me – it’s listed as being chosen as the advance single, and I think that’s ultimately a good call to have made.  Word on the street is that you’ll be able to hear this song for yourself as of November 24th this year when it gets released online long in advance of the album.

“I Feel Nothing” is the only track to featured two guest-stars at the same time, with both Manuela and INERT in the mix.  So…hmm…let’s see here.  Do “I Feel Nothing” or do I feel something about this track?  I’ll put it this way…I feel like each time we’ve heard Manuela so far, she’s done an exceptional job with the material.  As far as I know, she’s not the one writing the words, but she is the one singin’em…and I think she’s doing a tremendous job within a fairly confined metering.  On the one hand, Gary’s lyricism is ensuring a structured flow that pretty much guarantees the melody will stay on-point…but on the other hand, when you listen to verses and writing like you’ll find in “Secrets And Lies” and “I Feel Nothing,” it can feel a little strict and somewhat rigid in that regard too.  There’s a bit of a trade-off…and I feel like a singer as stunning as Manuela can probably be trusted to find a path that is potentially a bit more organic.  Like when she’s singing the “I can’t help myself” parts on “I Feel Nothing,” or even the chorus to a degree, you get a sense of what she can bring to a song with more space to use at her own discretion.  That being said…I think it’s fair to say we know how Blake tends to work at this point – he’s not so much the type of artist that surrenders a whole lot of control when he’s creating & collaborating, and to be completely fair to the guy, he’s got great instincts for the direction of the material he makes.  Anyhow…it’s something I’d consider if I was him.  A basic framework is often the best way to approach those hired guns & guest-stars out there…then stand back and let’em impress you by adding what they might come up with on their own.  Overall though, “I Feel Nothing” comes out sounding every bit as good as the rest do I’d say – I really like the background vocals added in by both INERT and Manuela – but yeah…at the same time, the more a pattern is noticeable like it is in the main verses and chorus, the quicker it has the potential to wear itself out as well.  Again, to be fair, it’s also what can make a song memorable and even single-worthy in many cases as well…”I Feel Nothing” could end up going either way I suppose – but on the bright side, the “glass half full” side – I didn’t feel indifferent towards this.

The song “Robot Revolt” actually made its first appearance as a Neon Radiation song on a record that was called Future TV Themes, which I wrote a review on back in January this year.  It’s funny…now I feel like I hear a bit of the Westworld theme in there – am I crazy?  That’s the show I’m thinkin’ of, ain’t it?  Seems like that would make sense, or at least potentially be an influence on a track named “Robot Revolt” – but I’ll let you all be the judge & jury on that.  In any event – I was a big fan of “Robot Revolt” to begin with, and I’m certainly still feeling that way about this extended mix too.  The fact that I get MORE of what I love here is definitely welcome as far as I’m concerned.  Blake has a seriously robust and potent mix of musical dynamism goin’ on with “Robot Revolt,” and while it’s one of the few dedicated instrumentals in the lineup on Liquid, it’s got everything it needs to compete & still stand out in the set.

“Get Out My Bed” was probably the first track I really felt like I might be on the fence about.  Don’t get me wrong, the quality of the production and the performances never drops.  Whether it’s the music from RubberStamp or the featured vocals of Sheddie, everything is still professional and the effort is tangible.  Material-wise…I suppose that’s where there could possibly be more debate about “Get Out My Bed” and whether it’s got quite enough in comparison to the rest of the lineup so far…I think that could be more debatable.  I like it…and I never found myself turning it off…but yeah…it still also seemed like it was missing that irresistible hook or inspired spark that the rest of the set-list possesses.  Might just be a bit too dialed-back on the vocal structure, or perhaps drifting just past the mark of what could make that element more memorable…it’s a good tune for sure, but pales a bit in comparison to the way the rest of this set seems to come at us.  For those of y’all out there old enough to remember cassettes like I grew up with, “Get Out My Bed” actually ends up feelings very much like a classic first song on side two type of vibe, kind of serving as a reset to allow for the room & opportunity to ramp things up again.

Metering…I tell ya.  It can be the greatest asset to a song, it can also become its worst enemy too if you’re not careful.  As “Ghosts” started up, I think the first thing I thought to myself was that Gary wrote the lyrics to this one.  The best way I can describe it, is that when you’re an electro-dude, based in programs and linear thinking, you naturally approach everything else with that same kind of perspective – and in my personal opinion, vocals tend to need a bit more freedom than that.  So for example, the opening verse of “Ghosts” just sounds way too rigid & restricted to me…I’m never gonna be the guy to tell ya that everyone out there is gonna hear it the same way that I do, but that’s what I’m hearing.  If I’m being honest with ya though, I’d probably say that the vocals actually end up feeling like a bit of an afterthought overall when it comes to “Ghosts” – and I might have gone without’em here, even while I still feel like INERT did the best he can with what he’s got.  I’d likely scrap the verses and keep the rest – anywhere that “Ghosts” are mentioned works brilliantly; the rest feels a bit too static, rhymey, and cold.  That could very well be intentional – “Ghosts” is about “how relationships from the past can haunt you if you don’t end on good terms,” which ain’t exactly the happiest subject of course.  That being said, cold is a tough gear to write in an accessible way…it can often come across disconnected and/or dispassionate.  Musically, there’s lots of potential here…”Ghosts” is actually quite a unique tune vibe-wise to this lineup.

One of the reviews that I first wrote for Kludge Magazine more than two decades ago was for the debut record by 30 Seconds To Mars, which I felt was both positive and objectively critical, the way that I still approach my writing to this very day.  They played a role in that – I ended up seeing the band at Lollapalooza in 2003, and they had actually displayed my review with their PR material at their press tent, which was actually shocking to me – I had no idea they were doing that.  My review more or less said that the first half of their album was inspired and straight-up awesome, and that the second half seemed to attempt to repeat that same magic & came out watered down by comparison.  I bring this up because I’ve got some concerns when it comes to the second half of Liquid.  I feel like tracks seven to nine are struggling to find that same spark that had been established in the first six songs if I’m being truthful with ya.  Like, “Stuff Of Life” is probably my favorite of the three I’d say, but that’s largely because I always love the sound of Manuela’s voice and the music completely jams as tight as tight can be – lots of great things happening on a production/performance level.  Lyrically, I gotta admit though, I’m not always lovin’ it…even the title alone, “Stuff Of Life” feels like it’s saying something & nothing at the same time, know what I mean?  I don’t want to be overly-critical…I found things I enjoyed in the verses and understand the points being made about how “everyday things are the essential stuff of life” – but it also feels like the use of ‘stuff’ is a substitute for saying what you’d really mean I suppose.  That could be my perspective…I don’t expect it to necessarily be shared by all of y’all…but yeah…I don’t know – I guess we all have those things that rub us the wrong way sometimes.  Manuela does a great job in singing this song as she always does…the music is freakin’ fantastic…and the main hook to me is actually the line ahead of “Stuff Of Life” where she sings “moments like these make us feel alive” – that’s brilliant.  I get what they’re going for here…and I’m not even saying that they’re not somewhat effective in communicating what they wanted to…but I’m not entirely convinced there isn’t a better way to say it.

“Neon Lights” is apparently the third track of Blade Runner-inspired tunes to be found on Liquid, which also includes “Dizzy Heights” and “Endless Nights” – so there’s that.  I’ll let that information be what it is and keep it factual for ya…I have no real opinion on that and at the very least, probably need to rewatch those movies – they never made a huge impact on me.  INERT comes back for another solid appearance, and again, the music is as tight as you’d ever want to hear it…but I’m still not sure about this second half of the record and whether it generates the pure level of interest that the first half of Liquid reveals to us.  Time will tell on that, as it always does – I’m never gonna be the guy to say that my opinion is the end-all be-all – I’m no different than anyone else out there with a pair of ears, I’m just willing to use my fingers to type out what they hear, that’s the only difference between us.  Musically, “Neon Lights” has got some seriously stellar flash & flair to it…but yeah…I don’t know if there’s something about the vocal patterns that seem to hold back these songs a little from reaching the full potential they could have I guess.  Again, that might just be the way I’m hearing it…maybe you’ll hear it differently.  I’m always on the side of the song when it comes right down to it…give it what it needs and nothing more I say.  In at least a few cases on Liquid, I’d have been all for a couple of these tunes going straight instrumental, and I wouldn’t have worried at all about them getting the attention they deserved.  With vocals, at times there are a few cuts on this album that seem like the accessibility is actually hindered by having a voice.

“City Of Lost Souls” is…a nice song.  Decent.  Inoffensive.  I still feel like we’re searching for that spark that makes the material irresistible and demands we return to it, but I appreciate that the quality in the music, production, and performances remains consistent throughout this album.  Like, Sheddie proves to be a really great voice to be found on this record, and arguably, you get a real highlight for how he sings on “City Of Lost Souls” as well.  Material-wise, I just don’t know that I’m fully convinced that RubberStamp is putting their best foot forward…I keep hearing good songs alongside the potential for greatness considering the pieces they have & the talent they share between them.  The guest-stars they’ve chosen throughout this record have also been continually exceptional too…so I’m genuinely a little bit perplexed right now.  I like what I hear, but I want to love it, know what I mean?  I get worried when I feel like a set-list of songs doesn’t quite incite that spark of excitement or interest that it perhaps should be…and I feel like Liquid is walking a very fine line here that they probably don’t even need to be.  Like I said, there’s no doubt about the skill level or talent that you’ll find in RubberStamp or the guests they’ve included along the way – they’re all great.  So be great then!  Simple as that, ain’t it?  Alright – every single one of you that has ever written a song knows it’s never actually that easy.  It’s trial, error, refinement, and often scrapping one idea in favor of something else – it’s HARD WORK to say the least.  Having said that, most artists/bands aren’t half as equipped as this collaborative effort is, so the expectations on the results naturally get raised as a result, which isn’t exactly the fairest thing to them.  RubberStamp deserves the same level of creative freedom as anyone else.  “City Of Lost Souls” is a good tune…I ain’t disputing that…but I do feel like there’s a whole other gear in this project that we’ve yet to really hear based on the talent, knowledge, and know-how they possess.  I can’t think of a single reason to not be proud of the way a song like “City Of Lost Souls” has come out if I’m being honest with ya – but by that same token, I have a harder time advocating on behalf of it without feeling excited about it too.

And there you have it…right there on display – that spark that’s been missing is immediately present in a song like “Parallel Worlds” – that instantly captivating, attention-demanding vibe, couldn’t possibly be missed.  Another expanded idea that comes from Neon Radiation’s Future TV Themes, “Parallel Worlds” was a solid inclusion here into Liquid, and the kind of cut that would definitely have everyone out there rushing to repeat this experience.  Like I was mentioning earlier – there is no justifiable reason that this ensemble of talent should shy away from going the instrumental route if that’s what the material is really calling out for.  As appealing as any of these guest-stars and their voices can be, if a song is stronger without a verse or a chorus, then so be it – do that instead and let the music always be your guide.  Because I’m tellin’ ya folks…there’s a difference between the first half of this record and its second – and you end up realizing that the most when you return to the kind of indisputably spectacular dynamism you’ll discover at the very end of Liquid with “Parallel Worlds.”  So!  Where does that leave us?  Good question!  And only they’re going to know the answer to that.  As far as I’ve read, this album isn’t scheduled to be released until towards the beginning of May next year…which leaves them a ton of time to make adjustments if they’re feeling so inclined.  Personally I think there are things they can do between now and then to raise the stakes a bit more and potentially strengthen the second half of this album…but that’s gonna be entirely up to them.  As we always say on these pages of ours, time will tell.  My gut tells me they’ve got more in the tank than they’re currently sharing with us…we’ll see if I’m right.

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