Album Review: Red Collar – Pilgrim

In the not-too-distant past, the term “bar band” had been equated to local townies that got together at their favorite watering hole, had a few drinks, then hit the stage at 9pm to cover Eddie & the Cruisers once or twice a week. We’d go see them because they’re friends of ours, or maybe they just happened to play at the only place that would serve those who were under-aged. We wouldn’t talk about them the next day unless one of them was your roommate. But the times they are a-chan…you get the idea.

Fortunately, thanks to bands like The Hold Steady, the bar band has made a comeback. Inspired by old Springsteen and others of his ilk, these groups are reminding us that you can write and perform genuine heart-on-your-sleeve music and gain respectability, even without electronic beeps and bleeps in your background. You can add Red Collar to this new generation of the bar band. The band’s debut album, Pilgrim, may not appear on our top-ten lists at the end of the year, but the music offers hints of good things to come from this Durham four-piece.

We’ve had pop music around for over fifty years, so long that even a great song can’t manage to surprise the listener. It’s a testament to Red Collar that it is able to do so twice on album opener, “The Commuter”. We hear cars driving by, droning keyboards, misleading us about what to expect next. Suddenly, a well-worn voice begins to sing with desperation, as the song (and album) bids farewell to sound effects and hello to Springsteen.

The lead singer is Jason Kutchma, who sounds like he has possibly smoked a cigarette or a thousand in his time, and before you know it, the rest of the band slams into the picture. They answer Kutchma’s vocals as a unit, much like Craig Finn’s bandmates sing back to him during melodic choruses. They support Kutchma as he concludes with his reluctant acceptance, “When the morning comes/Gotta run, gotta run, gotta run!/Until the day is done/Gotta run, gotta run, gotta run!”

Special mention goes to Beth Kutchma, wife of the lead singer, who offers up Peter Hook-ish bass guitar to compliment the drumming of Jonathan Truesdale. She particularly shines on the intro to “Radio On”, matching the guitar playing of her husband as well as guitarist Michael Jackson (not that one, the other one). Like many songs on the album, it demands you to turn the speakers up on your iPod, car stereo, or home entertainment system. To be eloquent: this shit needs to be played loud!

Oh, and do you miss Paul Westerberg’s old band? Guitar licks from The Replacements seem to have inspired Red Collar, especially in “Rust Belt Heart” and “Hands Up”. They work nicely alongside the thrashing “Tools” and the pop rock of “Stay”. But it’s not all noise and shouts. Near the end of the album comes “Tonight”, with its acoustic, lo-fi sound. The placement of this song near the end of the album gives us a breather before the anthemic “Catch a Ride”.

Pilgrim has a few drawbacks. The members of Red Collar prove to the listener that they are capable musicians (and Kutchma a strong lyricist), but there isn’t enough variance from beginning to end. Certainly a song like “Tonight” proves the band can break down the idea of an acoustic ballad without succumbing to sap. A few more of those on album no. two will do wonders for Red Collar. Hopefully they will continue to work with producer Brian Paulson (Wilco, Beck), and avoid being a one-trick pony whose sound gets tired after a couple albums.

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