In Brief: TROK’s debut is a sheer joy to listen to. All that holds them back from perfection is a few weak lyrics and a tendency to overdo the drama.
There’s a space that exists somewhere in the cracks between pop, rock, soul and jazz that is difficult to put a label on. Not because it’s necessarily a groundbreaking genre – we’ve heard all of these things combined before and the result often ends up settling somewhere near “adult contemporary”. It’s more that it’s a tough sell no matter how you describe it. People who know nothing about jazz will call it jazz, assume it’s for old folks, and turn up their noses. Hardcore jazz aficionados will probably think it doesn’t focus enough on sheer instrumental talent or on experimentation with the musical form. A lot of folks in between will likely think “smooth jazz”, conjure up images of Kenny G. in their minds, and run screaming in the other direction. And trying to convince most rock fans that this works as rock & roll can be a laughable prospect as well. So you’d figure that a band like New York’s The Reign of Kindo has the cards stacked against them right from the start.
Thankfully, the guys in this band can play. And I mean really play. Piano dominates a lot of their music, and if you’ve had more than your fill of piano-based indie rock bands lately, you’ll be happy to know that TROK appears to have come from a universe where the “Coldplay plod” was never invented. Combine that confident piano lead with clean but quick-fingered guitar playing, the occasional trumpet or saxophone, and a kamikaze rhythm section, and you’ve got a real force to be reckoned with. These guys can play dizzyingly fast at times, in a manner that is dense and yet light on its feet, sometimes requiring a trained ear to keep up with the rhythm even though the underlying time signature is fairly basic. When they slow down to catch their breath, they can play several roles, trotting out a few stately, romantic ballads, laying the drama on thick for an extended instrumental piece, or even undergoing a chilling exploration of personal demons in one of their darker songs. It’s a musical potpourri, and yet it’s remarkably cohesive from start to back. Now throw a vocalist on top of all that who could potentially sing soulful circles around some of those fifteen-minute-stars from American Idol, but who knows when to pull it back for more of an understated approach, and I think you’ve got the recipe for a near-perfect band that doesn’t sound like everything else in your collection.
Now if I stopped at just describing the music, I’d have no choice to give The Reign of Kindo an A for their debut album Rhythm, Chord & Melody. It’s that tasty. But there’s one little nitpick that seems to loom larger and larger over my initial excitement as this album progress, and that has to do with the lyrics. These guys have a way with words when they really put their minds to it, showing the capability to create darkly imaginative narratives and poetic flights of fancy within the same breath. But it all starts to fall apart when they begin to fall back on the old reliable topics of “Gee, I wish I hadn’t let that woman get away from me” or “Ever wonder what this crazy thing called life is all about?” or even the dreaded, “Music can unify the world and heal everything!” And that’s when I have to roll my eyes just a little, because they’ve set me up with huge expectations and then shown that they can’t quite follow through. To be fair, it’s their first album. Lots of young songwriters are still working out the kinks at this stage, finding their voice, figuring out what works for the identity of their band and what doesn’t. But it does mean that the results could vary widely if you were to try to introduce a new fan to their music by playing a track from this disc at random – or at least, if the person was the type to pick up lyrics and analyze them and see whether they really hold water. There’s only so much vaguely existential musing a guy can handle before he wants a band to just shut up and get to the instrumental break already.
But honestly, that’s a small criticism of a mostly solid band. Rhythm, Chord & Melody, despite its cheesier indulgences, is a solid and satisfying listen from its captivating start to its rousing finish. Very few new bands demonstrate this much potential right away. That makes it easy to forgive what few missteps are present on this addictive album.
1. The Moments in Between
I remember when the wind brought heaven’s scent
And the stars that filled the sky drew a line between you and I…
The album opens on a beautiful, but tense note – simple piano chords quickly give way to a nervously building momentum, a song which is all a flutter with fast cymbal tapping and complex syncopation and a writhing, desperate melody that never seems to resolve itself to the expected chord. Right away the blend between jazz and rock is apparent – the timing and precision are all jazz, while the way that the song builds to a frantic climax reveals more of an “emo rock” sort of attitude. Emo bands don’t sing this smoothly, though (unless they’re the softie types like Copeland, and no, that is not an insult). A sense of regret permeates the song – a man finds himself burned by a fire he seems to know he should never have played with. Joseph Secchiaroli‘s plea of “Oh my God, what have I become?” is compelling, a perfect way to draw the listener into the album.
2. Breathe Again
We march down the stairs and into the other room
The lights shining bright on the tree for all to view
The window is shattered and the presents are all gone
And the cries of my children wrote this song…
It seems strange to follow up since an intense opening with such a downbeat track, but if you think this is just a bit of pleasant, mid-tempo ballade ring, then you’re really not paying attention. I know I wasn’t at first. I casually assumed that the soft, snowy tinkling of the electric piano and the statement of relief over being able to breathe again meant that this was a simple song about finding relief from stress. Then I listened closely and realized that this was perhaps the most devious song ever to be set to such an AOR-friendly soundtrack. The stress that this song’s narrator feels is due to waking up one Christmas morning and discovering that his children’s presents have been stolen. So he tracks the burglar down and SHOOTS HIM DEAD. It’s sung so casually that it’s easy to miss the disturbing gravity of the situation as he dumps the body in the river and shrugs it off: “Judge me all that your heart desires, but I can breathe again”. There’s no remorse expressed here. None. This sort of “outlaw tale” is usually reserved for bad-boy country music, not savvy suburban piano pop from New York… right? While I get that it’s obviously fiction and I don’t think The Reign of Kindo is condoning first-degree murder any more than, say, the Dixie Chicks, I’m still a bit baffled by this story, as out of the blue as it’s being presented to me. The lyrics are also a bit hackneyed – lines like “With all the toys that he’d carried oh so far” are thrown in there from time to time just to make rhymes work. It’s a curious diversion, but it doesn’t really fit among the band’s better songs.
3. Great Blue Sea
The rippled silhouettes of ships passing overhead
The rays of the sunlight, fighting for their lives
The silence never told a story like this before
I made my descent…
This song brings us back into the complex and highly rhythmic mood of the first track, redirecting the regret of that first song into a desperate cry for oxygen as a man drowning in the depths of the ocean looks back on his life and asks how he could have gotten himself in so deep. Taken within the context of the last two songs, this could either be the remorse that we expected to see expressed in track two, or it could be a soliloquy from beyond the grave, given by the man who was shot and dumped in the river. Or it could be not related at all, and I’m just making my imagination work overtime to try to make sense of it. Anyway, taken entirely on its own, this song is a masterfully performed wonder – its melody sways and punches in all the right ways, and the song goes through sections, at one moment tumultuous and busy, at the next almost tranquil, and even pulling off some slick rhythmic change-ups during the bridge. I still can’t figure out what time signature they switch to there (the rest of the song is played in a fast-paced 6/8), but I love the double exclamation marks that each punch from the drums and guitars gives you, intentionally jolting you out of the otherwise fluid rhythm of the song. This one’s an epic – five minutes long and never a bit of dead space or a moment where it seems to drag.
4. Let It Go
It seems right to bear my own shame, but the mystery remains
Despite all the world, we are haunted by something we can’t explain
Like a whisper in our ear that just wants for us to hear a word of grace…
The pressure finally lets up for the first truly easygoing track on the record. (Not that I minded the intensity. I’m just weird like that.) The drummer lays down a nice, mid-tempo groove, and the band goes all smooth jazz on us with some simple but effective piano licks, and the occasional tickle from the electric guitar or interjection from a muted trumpet (provided by keyboard player Kelly Sciandra, who pulls double duty here). There’s the sense of a long-standing hurt or conflict finally being set aside in this song, as if the singer has finally managed to grasp the concept of grace (which about as explicit of a religious reference as you’re gonna get out of these guys – they are very upfront about thanking God Almighty and Christ in the liner notes, but don’t seem to tag themselves as a “Christian band”. I’m fine with that.) “I don’t believe that I could let it go”, states the simple chorus. But the laid-back mood seems to indicate to us that he’s in disbelief due to having done something that he previously didn’t think he had the capacity to do.
5. Nice to Meet You
Take me back to the days of the sun
Brightly shining down on the two of us
You used to lay, eyes staring into the sky
Leaving every toil, and worry so far behind us…
I’ll forgive these guys for giving into the urge to be mushy and sentimental here, because the entirety of the album doesn’t dwell on that mood, and because this sort of thing plays a lot better when you’ve got some musical sophistication to back it up. You could make a gentle slow dance work to the gentle three-quarter beat of this song, and the words seem to speak of a special someone who came along and changed everything for one man – it’s a flashback to when a couple first met and all was right with the world. Yet there’s a tinge of sadness that creeps in, as we get the feeling toward the end of the song that she’s moved on and now all he can do is thank her for the influence that she had in his life and know that he’ll be changed forever even if he can’t hang onto her forever. The song ends with an unresolved, “It’s just too late now”, never going back for a final chorus like you’d expect it to after that last unresolved note.
6. ‘Till We Make Our Ascent
All these years, we’ve hoped and we’ve dreamed
For a final escape, but to no avail
All I hear, the infinite buzzing of vanity’s lips
Forming words for the eager in ear…
It’s tempting to view this song as the last of a set of triplets along with “The Moments in Between” and “Great Blue Sea” – it’s got that same intense triple meter and a way of building momentum like a runaway train. Indeed, it takes some careful listening to be able to discern the three songs from one another upon the first few listens. But this might be the most fast-fingered performance of the three, with some dizzyingly cool runs on the piano and guitar, and lyrics that fly by just quickly enough for their meaning to not fully register at first. The band seems to be obliquely tackling religious hypocrisy here, noting the arrogance of men who sit around and point fingers at the world’s problems while basically sitting around and hoping to be whisked away from it all someday. The thought never crosses their mind that they’re part of the problem or that they could do something about it. The usefulness of this world and the people in it is lost to them. Coming from a band which seems to be made up of Christians, this is a challenging statement, but this is the sort of thing a lot of us see in our churches and in our discussions with our fellow sheep on a depressingly regular basis. It’s such a beautifully recorded piece despite the hurried nature of it that I can’t help but be drawn into the heavenly heights that it aspires towards, and yet the words seem to be telling me, “Not yet, there’s too much left to do here on Earth”. (As a side note, I’m mildly annoyed by the spelling of “’Till” in the title, since the word is a contraction of “until” and therefore there should only be one “l”. But whatever. It doesn’t affect the performance of a song that is otherwise pretty much perfect.)
7. Something in the Way that You Are
I live in a castle where no one can come near
And every wall was laid with bricks of mortar and tears
I swore I’d never lower down this old bridge again
But with every word you speak, my walls crumble in…
We return to a mellow mood here for a love song that is captivating as it is simple. We’ve all heard the slightly sultry and jazz/R&B influenced ballad that basically says, “I was a loner and I thought I was too cool for that sentimental stuff, but baby, you busted through all my defenses and now I’m all vulnerable and stuff.” I won’t lie to you and pretend that any new lyrical ground is being broken here. But they express it more exquisitely than my silly summary could hope to. This one could go toe-to-toe with the song “Angels” by Robert Randolph & the Family Band. Just replace the steel guitar with clean, undistorted electric, throw a few uptown music geek flourishes into the chord progression, and there you go. (Hmmm, now that I think about it, those two bands live awfully close to each other. They oughta think about doing a joint tour one of these days.)
8. Rhythm, Chord & Melody
The album’s title track, if I’m honest with myself, only really demonstrates two of the three elements of the band’s musical trinity, being a slow, sweeping instrumental piece with a fairly fluid tempo that allows for a lot of dynamic flourishes at all of the climactic points. Piano is the lead instrument, as expected, sticking mostly simple chords while very pensive solos are played by what sounds like a saxophone and a cello. (I could be wrong, especially about the latter. But whatever it is, it’s lovely.) This one runs for six minutes, and it’s genuinely captivating for about the first five, up until the point where it comes to a lovely false ending and then interjects a final coda that seems a bit tacked on when considering the structure of the piece as a whole. While quite talented, these guys can be a bit overly dramatic at times.
9. I Hear That Music Play
Can you hear it playing?
The notes intertwine
And every chord has purpose
Playing in its time…
Here the band gives into the worst of clichés with the best of intentions. This upbeat, brightly colored tune picks up perfectly from the final note that the title track left off on, but it commit’s the cardinal sin of preaching incredibly vague platitudes about the healing power of music. I have no doubt that it describes a genuine sense of elation that the guys have felt upon listening to artists like Dave Brubeck, who they thank in the liner notes. The problem is that they’re wink-wink-nudge-nudging us about whether we hear this beautiful, world-uniting music that has meant so much to them, but the description isn’t compelling enough for us to really take part. It’s too bogged down with their band geek music jargon – “When the rhythm and chords fill my ears” and so forth. Hey, I know what that stuff all means, but I’m counting on the song to communicate it to those who haven’t experienced the joy of playing an instrument. This only works in a “you had to have been there” sort of way. Plus it runs a bit long (almost six minutes immediately following another six-minute track), with a bridge that seems overextended just to tack on as many clichéd metaphors as possible, and a tempo that isn’t exactly kinetic. This is probably the disc’s weakest track (or at least its corniest).
10. The Mystery of Our Day
I could sing a rhyme and try to find
The reasons for each place and time
To wrap the world around my mind
But I’d regret the time poorly spent…
Competing with the previous song in the Velveeta department is this well-meaning but bloated piece, which aims to ponder the great mystery of mankind, which is… uh… actually, I’m not sure. They’re certain that it can’t be explained. (Well, thanks for clearing that up for me!) But at the same time, they’re waxing about as existential as your average latter-day Switchfoot song. (Am I allowed to say that even though Switchfoot is one of my favorite bands?) They’ve got a good, fast-paced rhythm and a swerving, minor-key melody going here, which really improves the song’s listen ability once they get into it. But the presence of a slow, drawn-out piano intro that seems to have no thematic connection to the actual song doesn’t help matters – especially when it feels like it might be just another leftover piece from the similarly bloated title track. I like this song overall, but it could have been so much better had they dumped the intro and not wasted the lyrics on stuff like “the reasons for pain in this life”. Egad.
11. Morning Cloud
Every care can be thrown to the wind by the ocean side
Watch them fade away
The sky is ablaze with the setting of the sun
Ends this perfect day with a million stars to gaze
This one feels a bit like a cross between a peaceful song like “Nice to Meet You” and a more intense one such as “’Till We Make Our Ascent”. It makes use of the mid-tempo version of the 6/8 rhythm that this band is so in love with. (I’m in love with it, too, so this is not a bad thing.) This one’s a little better on the lyrical side of things, describing the simple beauty of clouds rising gradually into the sky and adding color to a tranquil sunrise. This is a metaphor for peace, and perhaps for a moment of epiphany. But it’s kept small, intimate, personal – this song doesn’t feel like a broad attempt to ruminate on line, the universe, and everything. Sometimes beauty can just be beauty, and a peaceful moment can be a peaceful moment that doesn’t need to be explained away. There are some good drum rolls and subtle bits of horn playing in this one. Nothing flashy, but it gets the job done.
12. Hold Out
I’m getting on in my days
Sifting through the sadness for the gold of better days
So long as I keep breathing, I can find my way…
Just as the first notes of the first track gave little warning of the intensity that would soon follow, the gentle trickle of piano that opens the album’s last track doesn’t prepare you for the barn-burner (excuse me, I mean the Upper East Side loft-burner) of a grand finale that is soon to follow. But it’s only a few seconds in before rolling, crashing drums begin to cascade down on us (seriously, Steven Padin warrants instant entry into my pantheon of awesome drummers at this point) and suddenly we’re locked into a relentless, almost Latin-inspired rhythmic dance. It’s almost like the ghost of Burlap to Cashmere was floating around New York City and it chose to inhabit The Reign of Kindo for one song – the tricky percussion makes me pine for the memory of that old one-album wonder of a band, even if the jazzy piano playing and the crowd-pleasing electric guitar solo seem worlds away from that band’s Greek-and-Latin inspired worldbeat fusion. This is a song that expresses confidence in the face of growing older – perhaps it too is slightly clichéd, but it’s so infectiously happy that I can’t help but smile as they urge me to hold out for something better instead of giving in to the cynical attitude that life is always going to deteriorate and get worse. It’s fitting that they’d choose this dizzyingly fast song to end on, rather than going out on a downbeat note, because after this one comes crashing to a halt, really, what else is left to say?
It’s stunning to think if the possibilities that could open up for this band if they’d work on their lyrics a bit. What they have here is far from horrible, but the scattered moments where they give in and take the easy way out are honestly the only thing that keeps a five-star rating just out of reach for their debut album. They’ve shown that they can be pensive, romantic, socially aware, unabashedly emotional, and even slightly ironic. They’re clearly not limited to a single mood or identity. That will give them strength as they grow and try new things. They just need to remember to pull back and not try to write songs that address the world’s problems on a macro scale. They’re better off keeping it personal, relational, believable. If they can stick to that strength when they cut a second album, then I’m sure it’ll be quite a doozy. Until then, though, I bet they put on one hell of a live show. I’d go investigate for myself, if only I didn’t live on the wrong coast!
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
The Moments in Between $2
Breathe Again $1
Great Blue Sea $2
Let It Go $1.50
Nice to Meet You $1
‘Till We Make Our Ascent $2
Something in the Way that You Are $1.50
Rhythm, Chord & Melody $1.50
I Hear That Music Play $.50
The Mystery of Our Day $1
Morning Cloud $1
Hold Out $2
Joseph Secchiaroli: Lead vocals, guitar
Steven Padin: Drums, vocals
Kelly Sciandra: Piano, trumpet
Michael Carroll: Guitar, percussion
Jeffery Jarvis: Bass, Vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.