Man it must be nice to be Jack Antonoff. Between a dalliance with Scarlett Johanssen and cult-like status in the super group Fun, the New York City-based frontman is also the brain trust behind burgeoning indie juggernauts Steel Train. Veteran performers of Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and Coachella the quintet are a much-praised, must-see live act who made a sizable dent with their 2007 full-length Trampoline. This year’s self-titled follow-up is a harmonic collection of 12 veritable anthems. Soaring, transcendent and deeply felt, it’s as good a disc as any released this year.
The band sets the tone exquisitely on the triumphant opening number “Bullet,” a tightly packed, four-minute pop masterpiece. Anchored by Antonoff’s confident vocals, its rising chorus is arguably one of 2010’s finest moments. If album openers are supposed to be introductory statements, then Steel Train has indeed made the declaration of the year. For those still not on the bandwagon, it’s time to step on and start taking this band seriously.
The jittery, yelpy and sometimes spastic “Turnpike Ghost,” introduces the band’s flair for the dramatic, Antonoff’s trademark narrative tone and as cohesive a rhythm section as any not named Tavarez and Sarcona. Not one to be pigeonholed, the quintet tackles the cerebral on “You and I Undercover,” a piano-laden rumination that shuffles along with a confidence and swagger as charming and indelible as anything the band has released to date.
And so it continues. Every measured moment, every nuanced angle, every passing moment brims with urgency, passion and consistency. Never once do any of the 12 songs ebb or flow. Never once is there a dip or hiccup. From the frolicking and sometimes spiky “You are Dangerous,” to the propulsive and percussive “S.OG. Burning in Hell,” the album’s first half is a cohesive, focused and buoyant collection of 70s era album-oriented rock.
Known as much for their rambunctiousness as their literate ways, Steel Train have managed to take all the hallmarks of their sound but pushed them even farther. And yet never once is their sound compromised. The sexual luminescence of “Touch Me Bad,” and the harnessed precision of “Behavior,” reveals an attention to detail never felt on Trampoline or Twilight Tales from the Prairies of the Sun.
On the disc’s second half, there’s never a dull moment. Whether it’s the caffeinated buzz of “Children of the 90s,” or the straightforward honesty of the falsetto-laden “Soldier in the Army,” there’s nary a crack, wrinkle or blemish. The album’s closing triumvirate offers up the hazy acoustic ditty “Bloody Lips,” arguably the album’s weakest offering, the explosive “The Speedway Motorcycle Racers Club,” and the nearly perfect closer ‘Fall Asleep,” a stirring splash of chamber pop that’s potent, panged and pristine.
That this self-titled is so profound is important for a slew of reasons, but none are more important than these two: Foremost, Steel Train was self-produced, proving that Antonoff is equally adept behind the knobs as he is behind the mic. That these 12 songs sound so rich and vibrant is a testament to his inherent skills as a musician. To put it simply, he knows his way around a song and knows what to do, perhaps better than most, if not all, of his peers. He knows when to restrain himself, he knows when to leave it all on the table and he knows when to trust his bandmates.
Equally as important is the very fact that this effort marks their first project since breaking free from the shackles of California’s Drive-Thru Records. Now fully independent and wholly DIY, Steel Train have most assuredly announced their arrival as one of rock music’s most engaging purveyors.