I’ve never loved as band as much as I loved the Rx Bandits. They were, before their break-up just a few weeks ago, the most adept group of musicians when it came to combining technical, progressive elements with the spirit of groovy, loose, reggae-like music that I had ever found. That’s why I was so heartbroken when announced that they were calling it quits. But regardless of how upset I was, I continually told myself that this amazing group of musicians would most likely never cease to be just that: I would have future releases of theirs to look forward to. So upon hearing about guitarist/singer Matt Embree’s new project, a collaboration with Lisa Papineau of the band Big Sir, I was ecstatic. I knew that yes, even though the Rx Bandits might be done for the foreseeable future, I would at least have a new record to fall in love with by one of my favorite musicians of all time.
After my first time through the EP, Chez Raymond, I felt an unsettling pang of disappointment. Rx Bandits as a band were generally fairly heavy and certainly influenced by post-hardcore at least in some subtle ways. Regardless of how you want to label it, their music is based entirely around intensity and energy. I would never have expected one of the people from that group to put out a bland, middle-of-the-road album. Yet that is what I hold in my hands. Matt Embree’s music has always been driven by a desire to innovate and try new things (look no further than his work on The Sound Of Animals Fighting’s 2006 record, Lover, The Lord Has Left Us… as proof of this) – even his 2008 solo acoustic album Waxwane has a biting, honest edge that made it supremely enjoyable. His work on Chez Raymond, however, feels very safe to me. Gone is the energy and experimentation that dominated his previous work; here, it is replaced with reliance on simple twee-pop tropes and an attempt to sound “lush” and “orchestrated.”
The first track on the album, “Quatro,” is a quiet acoustic tune. Lisa Papineau’s voice is undoubtedly very pretty here: impossibly high and impossibly airy. Her vocals, indeed, are little more than a whisper and are complimented by Embree’s light, fingerpicked acoustics. Fans of Embree’s work on Waxwane will undoubtedly recall the song “Brown Shingle Berkeley.” The only problem here is that there’s little emotional pull in “Quatro” – I’m left with the sinking sensation that Embree and Papineau sacrifice emotion for half-baked atmosphere. The same can be said about the following track, “Truth Be Told.”
From here, the record thankfully picks up a little, with one of the highlights being “La Belle Tocade.” Muffled drums, bells, whistles, and a light bass comprise the track while Papineau’s vocals take the center stage. The addition of other backing instruments injects some life into the music, but the listener is still left with a weak, uninteresting tune. The next song on the record, “Everybody Got Somewhere,” is just awkward and sounds haphazardly done. The prominent synth melody has a lumbering, dissonant quality that sticks out on the record like a sore thumb. The vocals sound cheesy and pretentious. It’s almost as if the musicians had tried to liven up the record without giving any thought as to how that end could best be achieved.
My favorite song on the EP has to be “(Bonnie Says) No Shitty Ride.” This is the only track to prominently feature Embree on vocals; it’s no surprise that, as a consequence, this song has the most punch and energy on the record. The rhythms have a bouncy, fun, almost hip-hop-inspired groove. If I didn’t know better, I’d say it was beatboxed. As lukewarm as my review has been so far, I must give credit where credit’s due and say that this is a very good song. Papineau’s vocals work excellently here as well, as a counterpoint to Embree’s aggression. This is a finely composed track; Embree’s guitar sounds almost like something like we’d hear in an Rx Bandits song.
The record concludes with “Right On Down The Line,” which hits on mostly the same sound as the first two songs. This is a perfect microcosm for the record as a whole – I feel like this has all been done before. After having listened to the record through several times, I will not revise my original opinion: disappointment. I’m left with the feeling that Matt Embree is capable of so much more than this; I know that this is true from my broad experience with his previous work. After taking solace in the fact that the Rx Bandits would continue to make music after their break-up, this record has only served to make me feel uncomfortable. I hope that this record is simply Embree trying to work in a new direction and that he will continue to try different sounds. I would never have thought in a million years that a member of such a eclectic, accomplished group as the Rx Bandits could put out such a bland, pedestrian record. I guess I thought wrong.
If you’re a particular fan of the Rx Bandits or Lisa Papineau’s work and want to hear the songs for yourself, you can stream or purchase on the duo’s Bandcamp page. Peace.