To say Ladyhawk is a band that makes good but unmemorable rock and roll is to slight the group, but not by much. Fact is, the first two songs on "Shots," the band's second LP, likely will stick in your head long after you're down with the album and pop into your mind from time to time. Problem is, nothing else on the album makes much of an impression. Rock and roll really is the best way to label the band. Guitar-driven rock 'n' roll. The band leans alternately on folk rock, blues rock and alt country, but at its best, Ladyhawk pops both power and punk. The element that links all these songs and influences to a particular sound is a layer of grunge that's draped over the entire album. It's a sound that belongs in, maybe, 1993, somewhere between the alt-rock explosion of the early '90s and the subsequent regression to the underground that alt rock led to a few years later.
Back to that opening pair of songs, the album races off to a bouncing start with rhythmic guitars chugging along, drums popping and a backdrop of swirling, high-pitched synthesizer (maybe?). And "I Don't Always Know What You're Saying" introduces a topic the band revisits throughout the album -- the confusion in relationships. The dejection in Duffy Driediger's slacker vocals is perfect for the theme. "You can call if you want to," he cries. "I never see you!" His voice is even more effective later in the song, as he repeats the title, crescendoing into impassioned pain. "S.T.H.D." is almost as good, falling short only because of its regrettably short length. Crunchy guitar strumming opens the tune, which builds to a clamor and nervous tension in the chorus. But after two verse-chorus cycles and some terrific soloing, the song ends abruptly at less than two minutes and leaves you pining for more. It could be a shrewd move, but it sets the bar too high for the band to make good.
"Fear"'s tinny, lazy lounge sound is awkward and almost cumbersome. Never again would the album regain the consistent catchy rockness of the first two songs, though "Fear," and most songs on the rest of the album, do achieve some fleeting moments of uppercase rock. The chorus is big, and moving: "I just wanna feel something other than fear. I don't wanna go back but I can't stay here." Driediger crescendos into that passion and pain again when he repeats "Anymore now!" over and over before the band builds into a big, brilliant finish. But "Corpse Paint" opens with a return to that awkward, lazy style that started "Fear," and the back and forth becomes distracting. I'm all for dynamics. I prefer bands that can contrast fast with slow, soft or quiet with hard or loud, but Ladyhawk only engages me when it keeps the tempo up. The band does kick in again and rock out late, Driediger hits those depressed moments of passion again, but overall the sound of dirgey '70s trad rock dominates like cement boots. "(I'll Be Your) Ashtray" opens like the previous two songs, with that lazy, jazzy lounge style that sounds like the band is playing the notes wrong. It never makes that expected jump to big rock, though, instead slowly building to it. Again, it does grab me eventually, it just takes too long to get there. But I'm all for the subservient, just-wanna-be-near-you sentiment of the song: "I'll be your ashtray, if you need me, 'cause I only wanna feel you burnin.'"
Driediger's at his dejected best on "Faces if Death," completely defeated as he sings "I know there's no such thing as endless love, only a joke told in very poor taste that somehow keeps cracking me up." The sad, slow and twangy music is perfect for that sentiment, but again leaves me somewhat underwhelmed, but the band seems to be getting closer to getting the down-tempo thing done right. The rockout in this song again is excellent -- loud and clamorous with a great guitar solo -- but stays slow, an interesting change of the formula that developed after the first two songs. "Night Your Beautiful" and "You Ran" find Ladyhawk attempting to regain that punky power pop and stick-with-youness the album's first tracks attained, but both fell short, retaining too much of that awkwardness that appears in the downbeat moments.
On the album's closer, "Ghost Blues," Ladyhawk tries to show off its chops, its ability to jam. Always slow and dark, it is an effectively creepy and haunting track. Surprisingly for a slow-moving song, "Ghost Blues" doesn't seem like it's 10-and-a-half minutes long, thanks to several entertaining guitar solos and subtle changes of direction. But it does seem like it's eight minutes long, which seems like two minutes too many.
Despite the numerous flaws on "Shots," it's worth a listen by anyone stuck in the heydays of grunge and indie rock and by anyone enamored of indie rock that pilfers '70s trad. By mixing in so many high points among the low points, it is at times very memorable. It's just too frustrating. And if there was an "I Don't Always Know What You're Saying" single out there with an "S.T.H.D." B-side, I'd grab it and listen to it frequently. It would be the best single of the year so far. It's a shame the rest of the album doesn't hold up, but hopefully Ladyhawk will learn to harness its strengths for a more consistent record in the future.