This week’s Record of the Week is the 11-year-old Successful Failure’s sixth LP, “Ichor of Nettle,” a 16-song outing that blends power pop with roots rock, drops Oct. 20, and can be heard live that day at The Record Collector in Bordentown.
If you miss Tom Petty as much is I do, you will enjoy a good chunk of The Successful Failures’ sixth LP, “Ichor of Nettle,” the best of which also channels Gram Parsons, the Stones, and Cheap Trick, as well as Robert Frost and John Steinbeck, just for good measure. Together 11 years, the great power-poppin’, roots-rockin’ Trenton-based band take the title of its forthcoming collection, which drops Oct. 20, from a line in the Frost poem “Departmental” about funeral rites within the ant world. At 16 songs, the record is a bit overlong, as are some of its otherwise pop-friendly tunes, but nearly half of the tracks are magnificent and boast some of the most dynamic, lyrical, eclectic, yet focused songwriting to grow from the Garden State.
The outing opens with the Mexican-flavored “The Ballad of Julio Cuellar,” a real-life tale about a diabetic El Salvadoran state policeman whose smuggler abandoned him in the U.S. and left him nearly for dead in the Arizona desert. The heartbreaking details of how and why Cuellar illegally immigrated to better support his pregnant, cancer-ridden daughter are told to a Salvadoran customs agent, much like a down-trodden character in a Townes Van Zandt or Tom Rush classic.
Another fantastic track is the delicious country-rock of “Tennessee Boy” inspired by Steve Earle’s traditionally Irish-sounding “Galway Girl” from his 2000 LP “Transcendental Blues.” One of the things that I love most about roots music is that it’s like a big, happy family, handing down lyrics and melodies, like parents pass on a worn Bible and older siblings hand down clothing. This is the case with “Tennessee Boy,” which also was inspired by Steinbeck, according to founding Successful Failures singer-songwriter Mick Chorba. In addition to his stellar lyrics about the futility of ignoring physical attraction, the song is strengthened by the fine mandolin playing of Ron Bechamps, also the band’s tasteful bassist.
I also really love the power pop of “Misguiding Light,” especially the Beach Boys-like vocal harmonies and fuzz guitar of Pete Smith layered by Chorba’s sweet organ playing, which help to make a nearly perfect song if not for a drawn-out outro. Thankfully, there’s a radio edit that should land the veteran band scads of regional play and is available on promotional 10-inch vinyl.
“When Did Everybody Grow Up” recalls the Canadian power-pop band The Pursuit of Happiness’ “I’m an Adult Now” and sports more of The Successful Failures’ winning vocal harmonies. “Baby Home Tonight” harkens back to the early country-rock days of The Byrds and The Band with the kind of lyricism of their favorite songwriter, Bob Dylan. Two other stand outs channel The Rolling Stones: the fun, “Exile on Main Street”-like scorcher “The Shit That Weighs You Down” and the closing “The Devil Took a Liking to Me,” which can stand alongside “Sympathy for the Devil,” almost like a sequel. I love the beautiful piano intro before all hell breaks loose.
As a songwriter, I can relate to how difficult it is to exclude and edit songs. It feels like holding back a child. But as is the case with many self-produced albums released by local bands, more self-editing would have made the impressive “Ichor of Nettle” an even better album. It’s no surprise that the Tom Petty-like radio edit of “Into the Battle” is getting airplay on “Underground Garage,” given what a big fan host Steve Van Zandt is of the late TP. But the album track is another example of Chorba’s self-indulgence, heightened by the aforementioned promotional record that features a three-part version of a song that most effectively clocks in at 3:05.
The roots-rockin’ salute to heroic Texan “Sam Houston,” generational tug of “Dear Old Dad,” tongue-in-cheek travel song “No Good Way” about the perils of driving in Jersey, “PA Fight Song,” a Flying Burrito Brotherseque ode to the Keystone State, and Todd Rundgren-meets-Cheap Trick-like title track that carries the dying American dream on the backs of Frost’s ants add greatly to “Ichor of Nettle.” But that leaves three tracks – the bass-driven, reggae-rooted, surf-tinged “All Rise (The Ballad of Sonny Liston),” the poppy love song “All Wrapped Up,” and the boring, awkward ballad “Low Resting Heart Beat” – that could have been left off and utilized as promotional fodder. Of those three, the 15th track (whew!), “Low Resting Heart Beat,” doesn’t deserve to be among the other great and good songs at all. Ironically, on the closer, the band is redeemed by the devil.
Via Chorba’s FDR Label, “Ichor of Nettle” and four-song companion EP, “Red Bank,” featuring live in-studio versions of “Sam Houston,” “Misguiding Light,” “Shit that Weighs You Down,” and “PA Fight Song,” coincide with a celebratory show on Oct. 20 at The Record Collector in Bordentown with former label mates The Paper Jets. The Successful Failures also will perform on Oct. 13 and Nov. 17 at Tir Na Nog, Trenton; Nov. 3 at the International Pop Overthrow at The Vault at Victor Records, Berlin, N.J., and Nov. 25 at Boot & Saddle, Philadelphia.
Bob Makin is the reporter for www.MyCentralJersey.com/entertainment and a former managing editor and still a contributor to The Aquarian Weekly, which launched this column in 1988. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Like Makin Waves at www.facebook.com/makinwavescolumn.