By David M. Goldstein | 13 February 2008
Why does Dead Meadow continue to produce such tepid studio albums?
The preceding sentence will make far more sense to those who’ve been fortunate enough to see them onstage. A Washington D.C.-born, L.A.-based three-piece often cited as the leaders of the recent wave of American psych-rock bands (see also: Comets on Fire), the Meadow are capable of breathing fire in concert. Spearheaded by Jason Simon’s manhandling of his wah-pedal and Stephen McCarty’s floor tom thunder, a Dead Meadow gig is an aural descent into hell, achieving heaviness on par with the finest head-fuckers of the late ’60s including Blue Cheer and Band of Gypsys. They don’t lack for credibility amongst their peers either—not only are they heavily featured in the forthcoming psych-rock documentary Such Hawks, Such Hounds, but the film was named after a song from their last album. Sleater-freakin’-Kinney even handpicked them to open a leg on one of their final tours, where Corin Tucker et. al. were themselves morphing into a psychedelic metal juggernaut onstage.
But unlike that dearly departed trio’s albums, Dead Meadow’s studio documents often struggle to justify their existence. 2005’s Feathers felt like a tentative step in the right direction, and this critic had high hopes for Old Growth, surmising that Dead Meadow were one new producer and/or 1,000 extra studio dollars away from dropping the motherfucking hammer like they’re so clearly capable of. But most of Old Growth still sounds like the work of a neutered band all too willing to distance themselves from the heavy majesty of their live show. And they’ve picked up some nasty habits since their last album in the form of “chunka, a chunk, chunk” white-boy blooze riffs that the Black Keys can barely get away with.
A handful of cuts suggest it didn’t have to be this way. “‘Til Kingdom Come,” a heavy swirl of a song relying on a sinister four note riff and pounding drums, stands out as one of the few tracks in which Dead Meadow somehow remembered that they’re supposed to be sonic monsters. The same goes for the snake charmer groove of “Seven Seers” and “Queen of All Returns,” the first half of which resembles the frantic drum math of Black Sabbath’s “Rat Salad.” And the acoustic slink of “I’m Gone” is probably their best attempt at sounding like wayward bluesmen (“If you want me to / I will stay with you… / But come the light of dawn / I’m gone”), but it hardly makes up for the lack of wah-abuse on the rest of the record.
Nearly everything else on Old Growth consists of middling blues-rock with impressive soloing but negligible heft. I can appreciate that Dead Meadow are clearly trying to avoid being pigeonholed, and I can’t hate too much on any band that filters wah-guitar through vintage Orange amplifiers. But it would appear as if Dead Meadow are incapable of using the recording studio to their advantage. Regardless, I’ll continue to see them whenever they roll into town with the anticipation that Jason Simon’s guitar will still cause permanent damage to both my eardrums and face. One can only pray that their next Matador release is double live.