Music tightly bound to the term Progressive Rock often shows the tendency of sounding generic. The same old Mellotron thickening curvy harmonies, a syncopated 7/8 meter driving down the same old lanes toward a dramatic chorus or a complex hook performed in unison by guitar and keyboard breaking out into thick canonic layers are only some of the ingredients that have been used and recycled time and time again. Throughout their career, New Jersey-based The Tea Club have been able to avoid tapping into these clichés, but rather continue to repeatedly surpass their own achievements, not by reinventing their sound, but by steadily improving on what was original, compelling and completely their own to begin with. The unique guitar work and vocal harmonies performed by the brothers and leaders of the band, Patrick and Daniel McGowan, are only some of the unique traits, that leave the group standing out as one of the most original in today’s landscape. On If/When, they’ve further refined their style and tie together their leanings towards the dissonant with engagingly melodic choruses and humbly hide the virtuoso nature of their playing in structures that are proof of sophistication without giving up on their adventurous spirit.
The title’s play on confronting the seemingly synonymous conjunctions if and when serves as the main concept of the record and can be traced across the album all the way to the cover art, which puts the dichotomy between shell and anatomy of man on display. Like the cover painting, the setlist can be interpreted as a binary division as well: the first represented by a chain of six shorter and more immediate cuts, the last by one single long track with a running time of just under half an hour, carrying the existentially human title Creature. One could argue, however, that it only is a long track for symbolic reasons, for the compositional structure of the song reveals a mirror of the first half of the record and could just as well have been divided into smaller portions. Here, little musical quotes and imitations introduced before, are found sprinkled between the measures.
On the purely musical side of things, The Tea Club picks things up where they left off on 2015’s Grappling but incorporate a further acoustic layer that evokes the subtlety of Folk music. In a highly dynamic production, arguably inspired by the organic sound of the early ’70s, intricate acoustic textures are met by electronic walls to a synergetic effect that channels vast energies. The more or less straight forward rocker Say Yes cuts through the afore introduced folky guitar-driven opener The Way You Call like a puddle of neutrons and protons in a game of tug-a-war. Echoes of 2012’s harsher sounding Quickly Quickly Quickly surface before the title track If I Mean When calms the waters and introduces what may be The Tea Club’s most melancholic ballad to date. It follows up the densely packed Say Yes like a breath of fresh air and sees the band presenting their strongest features in a compact way. Elegant acoustic guitars guide subtle yet gripping vocal harmonies at the core of this picture and make for a catchy chorus that can’t help but stick.
The six-minute-long gloomy crescendo that is Riverman brings back the calculated aggression before Came At A Loss revives what seemed like the lost art of a gently swinging folk song in 6/8. As the title suggests, melancholia is back on the table and might leave the listener in a slightly bewildered state of mind before Sinking Ship takes care of the rest. Another ballad in a similar spirit as the title track, Sinking Ship sees the piano take up the leading role and together with percussive drumming and guitar work create a dreamily atmospheric soundscape. Like on most songs here, the progressive nature of the music doesn’t dominate the surface but lies within the elaborate harmonies and intricate details hidden at every turn – here for example represented by electric guitar patterns that alternate between a staccato in quarter sextuplets and straight forward eights.
The Creature is both the opener of the second half of the record as well as the closing piece on the album. Many different currents and streams unfold throughout the composition, much like the flow of a long and winding river. In between mostly pastoral and symphonic sections of epic proportions, The Tea Club insert some electro-acoustical play, reminiscent of Thom Yorke’s solo ventures, before departing into a raging fit, brimming with fuzz and distortion. They come out on the other side, only to end up where they began: “The way you call, as if I don’t already know…”.
In what concerns the lyrical aspect of the record, much contemplation and reflection on society, existence and, consequently, coexistence can be traced in, as well as between, the lines – some hopeful, most discouraging to the point of despair, sometimes even anger. What a gift The Tea Club have, to be able to channel these troubling thoughts into something so beautiful and wholesome. An outstanding and emotionally expansive recording by a band that deserves the widest audience possible, regardless of the term Progressive Rock or any other category for that matter.
01. The Way You Call (2:39)
02. Say Yes (4:12)
03. If I Mean When (4:21)
04. Rivermen (6:35)
05. Came At A Loss (4:19)
06. Sinking Ship (3:17)
07. Creature (27:45)
Total Time – 53:08
Daniel McGowan – Electric & Acoustic Guitars, Vocals
Patrick McGowan – Vocals, Electric & Acoustic Guitars, Mandolin
Joe Dorsey – Keyboards
Jamie Wolff – Bass
Dan Monda – Drums, Percussion
Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: U.S.A.
Date of Release: 30th July 2019