BY FRED MILLS
As good as Charlotte, NC, combo Temperance League’s 2012 eponymous debut was—and the Mitch Easter-helmed record was unquestionably one of that year’s unheralded gems from the Tarheel state, a-blaze with punk & garage-fueled anthems—the new Rock and Roll Dreams is so far beyond expectations that even longtime aficionados have been seen shaking their heads in disbelief. No less than stalwart BLURT contributors John Schacht and Jordan Lawrence have indicated as much. The former wrote in a recent interview with the band for this magazine, “[They] chronicle life in the trenches—the musical one and the workaday jobs familiar to so many musicians who trade dollars for shifts for the occasional week on the road. The band’s music roils and churns between the energy and passion you expect from young bucks trying to make their mark and the even greater urgency that the ticking clock infers.” Meanwhile the latter noted how “the songs erupt with passion and doubt… an album of conviction” in his October profile for IndyWeek.com.
I missed the group’s development period, being geographically distant, but upon obtaining that debut LP and then, a couple of months ago, finally seeing Temperance League live, I got it. This is one of the most convincing stage acts ever to surface in my home state, and the good news for you, dear consumers, is that the records hit the mark as well.
On the new album, following the preface-styled title cut, a gospellish piano-fueled number that outlines vocalist/lyricist Bruce Hazel’s self-imposed challenge of how to grow older amid the rush of rock’s never-say-die ethos for musicians, Temperance League slams into a 12-string stomper, equal parts Byrdsian psych and Springsteenian anthemism and bearing the prophetic title “Unrelenting,” and from that part onward, the gloves are off.
There’s “Now I Understand,” powered once again by Hazel’s gifted 12-string-wielder/songwriting foil Shawn Lynch, simultaneously defiant and vulnerable, with the stark chorus, “Are you still with me?/ Or are you waiting on someone else?”; the brawny, explosive “Lost,” veering from controlled disdain to unhinged vitriol, like a cross between Van Morrison and the Sex Pistols; and the kinetic, insistent “(That, You Can) Count On,” which not only generated an altogether memorable live-in-studio video not long ago but also hit the top of the official BLURT Spotify playlist around the same time. Yet it’s hard to select standout tracks on an album where each song stands out, the writing and arranging—not to mention the producing, courtesy Tarheel hero Mitch Easter—so confident and mature that it forecasts an eventual judgment of “timeless” on the part of fans and critics. The only thing stopping me from giving it a full 5-out-of-5 stars is that it seems unfair to raise expectations that high among potential fans who might be convinced to pick up the album on the strength of a lone review.
But the Temperance League sets the bar mighty high. Once upon a time we would have called this “heartland rock,” a milieu populated by the Springsteens, the Mellencamps, the Segers and the Pettys, although nowadays that term is probably used pejoratively by the hipsters and ironists who make up the core concertgoing audience. (Springsteen, it should be noted, is an obvious influence upon Hazel, who bears no small resemblance to the Boss vocally as well.) My gut feeling, though, is that for those of us who value songcraft over style, and lyrical depth over catchphrase-slinging, we still get it. If, like Hazel, we rue the ticking of the clock and how it represents the gradual diminishment of our own rock ‘n’ roll dreams, well… this album, and this band, somehow has discovered the magic that can allow us to dream anew.
DOWNLOAD: “(That, You Can) Count On,” “Unrelenting,” “Are You Still With Me”