4 out of 5
Label: Frenchkiss Records
Produced by: Greg Norman (recorded by)
A couple years on, and a move from the more emo-geared Revelation Records to the occasionally odder, quirkier pastures of Frenchkiss has punked-up rockers Call Me Lightning aiming for something of a concept album with Soft Skeletons, vaguely tracing a theme of awareness – and eventual embrasure of -death, and then rebirth at the end of a cycle, becoming a child again. And maybe this seems pretty heavy for a band whose debut I pretty much just described a kickin’ out the fun jams, and yes, that is really the main weakness here: while singer Nathan Lilley affects some great imagery on occasion, and snippets of songs find interesting ways to evolve and narrate this theme, it’s… pretty loose, and perhaps not consistent. What feels like it’s initially building up for some tracks falters for focus eventually, and draws more attention to the shorted nature of some of the lyrics. Assessed too much from this perspective, yes, Soft Skeletons stumbles: songs that don’t stand on their own – as they’re lead-ins or interstitials to / between larger moments – don’t make as much sense.
However, we circle back around to CML still rocking our absolute socks off, and try to allow some wiggle room for attempted growth. Because while the “concept” might not make for a followable throughline, the songs do all beat around the bush of an idea, and shake loose some very memorable feelings along the way, which are absolutely pushed over the top by showmanship: Lilley’s intense delivery, alternating between frantic talk-shout and a howl, the guitar and bass interplay (Bill Kutsch on the latter) delivering eleven catchy-ass riffs and melodies, allowed – perhaps thanks to identifying more with the Frenchkiss stable of weirdos – to spread out to differing paces and styles, drummer Shane Hochstetler maintaining that Who inspiration by absolutely thrashing hell out of his kit the whole while. Recorder / mixer Greg Norman gives the set a warmth that’s better for this approach; the debut was rightfully raw, and that’s still present, but Soft Skeletons is also more purposeful across the board, and Norman helps give it that precision.
The peaks of the kinda-sorta tale Lilley is telling do hit home: the pair of introductory tracks which toss in references to school and youth which sync up with the previous disc; Nobody Dies’ triumphant revelations – which, yeah, that coming halfway through the album maybe says something about the aforementioned narrative stumble – and the intense, emotive warble of closer Return as a Child, which brings in some organ to grand effect.
As long as you’re not trying to line up every detail, Soft Skeletons is an incredible way for CML to have shifted and grown their approach without sacrificing their core, punky sound. Taking a step back to face value, it’s an absolutely badass rock record, on par with their excellent debut.