When word spread that M.I.A. Cincinnati rockers Moth had scored a major label record deal, it was somewhat of a surprise locally. While some were stupefied that the band, who'd never really amassed a huge following here, would warrant such a deal, the real shock was that a real "Rock" band could still hit the majors.
Instead of a DJ or rapper, Moth got attention through solid, gimmick-free songwriting. Nothing more, nothing less. Even with the music biz headed once again toward music with substance, a band like Moth — who've been together for more than a decade and whose signing might not have been as surprising in the mid-1990s — is still somewhat of an anomaly in major label land.
But their hard work and perseverance should be a lesson to all of those talented bands out there that get frustrated by Cincinnati audiences' sometimes nominal lack of support.
One listen to Provisions, Fiction and Gear, the band's major label debut, and any doubt that these guys aren't capable of functioning on such a monumental level is out the window. The band is now labelmates with The Rolling Stones and Iggy Pop, and their debut is miles better than those artists' most recent work.
Provisions is a dynamic album, split between spacious ballads and adrenalized rockers, with melody and singer Brad Stenz's raw, almost wounded vocals being the main consistency factor. The record starts with a mighty 1-2-3 punch of AltRock radio-friendliness.
"I See Sound," the record's first single, sets the tone.
While the band doesn't use a ton of studio trickery, the songs' quirks and structure shifts often are jarring. "I See Sound" begins with a little lo-fi warble, before launching into a guitar-crunch that would make Billy Corgan envious. Those types of twists might not be unusual, but the band's ability to launch into a variety of bridges (from a heavy Rock guitar workout to the song's quick and odd Ska hiccup) without being distracting or interfering with the song's effectiveness is the sign of a songwriter with impressive capabilities. Shit, the Ska part just flat out takes balls.
"Thinking Please" plays things a bit straighter, with a fiery, youthful passion that would fit next to a Blink 182 song on the radio. The record's third track is the epitome of a great Pop/Rock song: A twiddling Moog-ish keyboard part (think Guided By Voices' "Teenage F.B.I.") offsets the skittish melody, before the song drops into a swirling, tremeloed-out chorus that features the best hook of the record. If this isn't the record's second single, somebody at Virgin needs to be fired.
Following the album's only misstep — "Burning Down My Sanity," a wiry, limp cut that seems like it might have been left off of a Jesus Jones album — the real heart of the record presents a side of Moth that wasn't as apparent in the band's earlier material. The moody "Leftovers" is a quieter turn, sounding like Sister Lovers-era Big Star or more recent Blur, while "Lovers Quarrel" is the album's cornerstone epic, a bleeding love song of utmost quality.
On these more expansive songs, Stenz is able to show an emotional range that's harder to fit into a quick three-minute Pop tune, especially with all of the curves this band throws in. Guitarist Bob Gayol also has a chance to show off his skillful playing, which drips across the tracks like sweet sonic drizzle.
The album rocks and then rolls to a finish with shining cuts like the crafty, heavier "Cocaine Star" (with its shades of Brainiac and locked-in playing by the superstar rhythm section of Tommy Stinson and Josh Freese); the playful, jerking "Sleepy;" and the trippy "Straight Line" and "Not Really," which are driven by an entrancing, filtered vocal effect (think French electronic duo Air backed by a Rock band).
It's refreshing that Moth was able to largely just do what they've always done. While there's an obvious upgrade in sound quality, you can tell the band took to the studio like it was a creative tool and not just a polisher.
With all of the horror stories you hear about major labels, the chance that Provisions would come out sounding like Smash Mouth or Sugar Ray is always there. Thankfully, the album sounds like Moth, the little band that could, using all of the resources they deserve. Provisions is a stellar first step forward.
CityBeat grade: A.