SOUL AMP – Strip Mall Heaven
(2005 Amber Soup Records)
Written by John Payne
Rock trio Soul Amp is the sound of small rural towns and working the third shift, a world-weary slice of Americana. Bluesy, piano-heavy passages sit alongside extended guitar jams, while singer/guitarist Brad Odland tries to figure out how he and the people described in the songs could possibly fit into our nation’s sometimes glorious but often troubled history. On their album Strip Mall Heaven, Soul Amp takes their sonic cues from a diverse array of artists; the influence of everyone from the Grateful Dead and Phish to REM, David Bowie, and Ben Folds is detectable throughout the record. What’s remarkable about Heaven is the way these disparate sounds are blended into a singular, homogenous presentation.
Results vary (though there are certainly more good than bad), which is odd considering the relative consistency of the album’s sound. “She Slit Her Wrists Again” is unfortunately not as cool as its title, though it has a pleasant, almost after-school-special vibe (“It’s a beautiful life / And you’re okay”), which, believe it or not, is a good thing in this case. The next track, “Touching in a Modern Way,” is unfortunately about as cool as its title, featuring an awkward rhythm in the verses and even more awkward moments of silence during the chorus. “Shove,” on the other hand, has deep funk, soulful organ, and a kick ass guitar solo worthy of Duane Allman (well, maybe not quite that amazing but still pretty damn awesome). “Throwing Rocks at Cars” has hypnotic, Bowie-like piano and slightly creepy but oddly compelling lyrics: “Glass piled in the street / Crippled minivans screech / Shattered, dented trucks / Rednecks rage and security moms wail.” Not a pretty picture…interesting, since it’s kind of a pretty song.
“Throwing Rocks” being the exception, lyrically Soul Amp stick mainly to rootsy themes, though they are made a bit darker here. Tales of blue-collar woe abound, ranging from a man’s decent into madness and violence following a nasty separation (“Johnny’s Wife Drove Johnny Crazy,” to the near-empty and almost fully isolated daily life a lonely war veteran, to a man’s difficulty trying to decide the best way to inform a friend’s wife of her husband’s death. Perhaps the lyrics in “Throwing Rocks” aren’t so unusual in the context of the album after all; the drivers victimized by a cruel teenage prank may represent the innocent people in other songs victimized by cruel pranks played by fate (or perhaps God).
But even at the most somber lyrical moments, the spirited music always manages to convey a somewhat Midwestern, keep-on-truckin’ attitude and sense of determination. Occasionally, that aesthetic even seeps into the lyrics as well, on standout tracks such as “Shove” and “She Walks On Up Ahead.” Sad stories aside, the music of Soul Amp seems to come to a comforting conclusion about life in America; it’s frequently hard, but just as often, it is good.