Thursday, December 13, 2007

CD Review: Downplay's "A Day Without Gravity"

by Dave Schaefer

“We started to build a name for ourselves as the crazy party band that could put on shows as long as six straight hours,” says Downplay lead singer Dustin Bates of their early days at Ohio University where the band began with the current member line-up. “But we still weren't a full blown original band in my opinion.”

That happened when the band released their first full-length CD Saturday in 2005, a year that also marked their move from Athens to Columbus as their new home base.

“I think the local Columbus music scene is great,” says Dustin. “There’s a very strong indy and heavy metal/hardcore scene especially. Tons of really good bands, like Embassy, For The Drive, Sighlo, Lovesick Radio, Bullet Jones, and Philo. This is definitely not an all-encompassing list -- I can’t possibly list every band that I’ve seen and like. And I’m sure there are sweet ass bands I've never seen.”

Downplay’s second full-length, A Day Without Gravity, was released in November via True Anomaly Records -- a label started by Dustin and business partner Rich Vertanen in late 2006. The album has already gotten some East Coast exposure on Undiscovered Radio Network where Downplay was ranked in the top five “Bands You Need to Know.”

A Day Without Gravity benefits from Downplay’s four years together. The playing is tight, the songs lean, and the vocals are very nearly impeccable. The CD mixes alt rock, power pop, and a touch of metal into a combination that’s tough to nail down into a single easy-to-label sound. And that’s just fine with Dustin.

“Not that we are the best band of all time,” he says, “but the press tends to label us as pop rock in their listings. I don’t care if they call us the shittiest band of all time, as long as they don’t just throw us into some generic pop rock bin.”

I agree. Though the pop rock label may be somewhat understandable, given the general need of many to stuff bands into a neat and tidy little box, it shows a decidedly superficial examination of the album. The driving “15 Minutes,” the rock riffs of “The Stain,” and the metal-tainted “Down To Zero” are strewn amongst the more alternative sounds of “Edge of the Universe,” “Sleep,” and the infectious brilliance of “Average Unknown.” In the mix, too, are the straight-up rock of “Maybe” and the closer “Back For More.”

That being said, it might be expected that A Day Without Gravity would be a schizophrenic mess -- on the contrary, it’s a tight, well-balanced album with tracks that stick with you. Granted, not every song is a winner -- “Queen of New York City” provides little in the way of something different, sounding very much like, well, a B-side -- but by far the majority of the twelve tracks are quality work.

Lyrically, the songs are creative, insightful, and pieced together with incredible precision. Dustin paints a lyrical picture that manages to place the listener in the center, creating an added layer of depth. The musically lacking track “B-Side” is unabashedly rescued by its well-crafted, melancholic lyrics alone.

Bottom line: Downplay’s A Day Without Gravity is an exceptional CD of alt/rock/powerpop/etc. songs that are memorable and listenable. After spending a week with the disc, I definitely recommend it.

Here's the song-by-song rundown:

The Stain
Okay, I have to admit the intro grabbed me. Not everyone sings about Ohio, let alone be brave enough to include it in the opening words of the opening song of a CD. Though the verses of the song are an up-and-down vocal and lyrical simplicity that I found somewhat bland, the music to this song is good and the chorus is a catchy foot-tapper that makes you want to revisit the song. On a minor note, the bridge is really good -- flows perfectly out of the song, then back into it, without disrupting anything.

Edge of the Universe
Dustin’s voice is the highlight of this track, effortlessly sending the lyrics weaving through the arrangement of guitars, drums and bass. This is a standout song -- the lyrics are clever, memorable, and the music blends beautifully into them.

Like “The Stain,” the chorus stands out, while the verses take a an unfortunate backseat. But, again, it’s such a damn catchy refrain (and the clever lyrics -- “You’re the reason I gotta take pills to sleep” -- get easily trapped in your head), that it’s forgivable.

15 Minutes
A nice rocker that takes a bend or two that you don’t expect, this track can’t help but be a fan favorite at live shows. It’s danceable in a testosterone-filled, head-bobbing sort of way, while the ladies can jump around and wiggle to it. Again with the good lyrics.

Queen of New York City
My least favorite track and one I just wish wasn’t included. Not that it’s completely unlistenable, but it doesn’t come close to matching the quality of the rest of the tracks. This is one of the few songs where the lyrics don’t work for me. Though they do work well with the music -- for what it’s worth anyway -- but the wit and depth that are evident in other tracks are lacking in this one.

Average Unknown
Easily my favorite track. “We’ve been walking on egg shells just to please you...” are lyrics that grab you, even though the beat and music have already snatched your attention. The refrain is brilliant, danceable fun, without the wit of the lyrics letting up. This is a song that’s extremely well-built, with everything working well together, creating a clever, pop-rock track.

Filthy Voodoo
I really didn’t want to like this song. Like “Queen of New York City,” the lyrics on this one aren’t up to what Dustin shows he’s capable of writing and at first it was hard to get past the somewhat corny line “...the filthy voodoo you do.” But the music on this one is well done and pulls you back into it. You do have to be willing to overlook some of the lyrical content -- though there are the occasional bright spots (“...we’re all addicted to the glamorized, get on your knees and glorify...”) -- in order to enjoy this track.

Okay, this is an odd one. The music on this track is definitely a yawner, fairly standard stuff that really doesn’t offer anything new. But this is a song that’s rescued out of the pit of mediocrity by its brilliant lyrics. Not an easy thing to do. It’s so lyrically well-crafted you can’t simply dismiss it, even though you initially want to. Take the time to actually listen to this song and you may feel the same way.

Down to Zero
This is another guitar-driven rock track. Piecing together standard rock-song lyrics with some more witty, Downplay-like wordcraft makes for a radio-friendly, highly listenable song. I wish it had a bit more of a rock feel, though -- it teeters on the brink of being a cool, musically harsher track, but pulls back before actually reaching it, as though they were trying to make it heavy, but didn’t quite succeed.

Fade Away
The guitar opening to this track is intriguing and draws you in, then it bursts with a harder edge that features some creative drum work. Downplay chooses not to beat you over the head with the tune, but instead injects just enough musical subtlety to create some depth.

This is as close as Downplay comes to a ballad. It begins much like “Fade Away” with a pleasant, subdued sound, then belts out a chorus that’s infused with loud guitars and pounding drums. The sound is built very deliberately and the vocals match it very well. Once again, the lyrics work.

Back For More
A lot of really drawn out notes in this track, which I’m still undecided as to whether it works for it or against it. It’s a pleasant enough song, but lacks a bit of originality. I would have preferred a stronger close to the CD -- perhaps swapping the order of this track with “Maybe.”

You may or may not like the genre of alternative pop that Downplay’s A Day Without Gravity falls into, but I don’t believe this release deserves to be quickly labeled and neglectfully pushed aside. For the most part, the songs are well-built, creative, and stand out lyrically. And throughout all these tracks -- like them or not -- Dustin’s voice is spot-on.

Upcoming shows:
12/21 Timberlane's, Salem, OH
12/29 Flannagin's, Dublin, OH
1/11 Skully's, Columbus
1/19 Fat Jimmy's, Kent, OH
2/1 The Greenville, Chagrin Falls, OH


Anonymous said...


Andy said...

GREAT BAND! I think you guys could definitely be really well known before you know it

CMDprompt said...

You guys are a lot better than I think credit is given. I had believed you guys were easily a nationally known band when I first heard The Stain and Sleep, but was amazed and almost saddened to see that you weren't. Good luck guys, and keep on rocking.