Album Review: Cheap Time – Fantastic Explanations (and Similar Situations)

A friend of mine once described how she couldn’t listen to music by artists who had “a lazy mouth” — singers who slurred words or generally let consonants slide away from them at the end of words. Her primary example was Andrew Bird, whose music she couldn’t appreciate because of his “lazy mouth singing.” Considering Bird’s mouth isn’t really all that lazy, that friend would loathe this Cheap Time record.

Seriously, there aren’t many slurrier vocalists than Jeffrey Novak on Fantastic Explanations. The Nashville trio’s frontman sounds perpetually drunk. And really, that isn’t a problem I’ve ever had with an album. In punk and garage circles, words that run into each other are invited — praised, even. But Cheap Time doesn’t play the “fast/loud/raw” card. In fact, the songs on Fantastic Explanations (and Similar Situations) tend to take quite a while to get through. And the slurry vocals just make the crawl even slower.

It’s almost as though Cheap Time took a series of one-minute punk songs and slowed them down to three minutes each. I understand the merit in wanting to display the lyrics, which might help explain the crystal-clear production and the too-slow tempo. But come on. When the shortest song feels like the longest song, there’s a problem.

Take “When Tomorrow Comes”, a song that opens with a power-pop riff and continues with a chord strike and a steady drumbeat. Sounds solid, right? Almost. But it’s the little things that drag the album down: The riff could take off and go a bit faster, the drums could pick up, and the chord strike makes the overall soundscape feel just a bit empty. That’s how Fantastic Explanations feels throughout: It’s always this close to being a good record.

And it’s all the more disappointing for a band that had a couple of ripping 7”s on Douchemaster and Sweet Rot and a killer self-titled debut LP on In The Red. Listening to those bashers puts this album’s energy to shame. Cheap Time was full of bashing, full-bodied, fast power-pop and glam songs. It’s sad that their 2008 record and 2010 record sound like the difference between The New York Dolls’ 1973 record and their 2006 record. They just sound so young and exciting on that first album, and here, they sound like a dragging version of their former selves.

Aside from “Woodland Drive” (which was on a 2009 In The Red 7”), the album keeps a fairly stagnant tone, and really, the songs float into one another without any song having a clear identity of its own. Sure, Novak’s words are interesting, but it’s hard to pay attention to them when each song sounds like a slightly altered version of the last one.

So, Novak, you can keep slurring, but pick up the pace, dude. We miss that Cheap Time energy.


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