May 3rd, 2012 | Published in TCS Reviews
By Pete Roche
Stalemate opened for The Ataris and played on the local stage when the Warped Tour rolled into town. Under a previous moniker—Tooth Fuzz—the Elyria trio featuring Jason Kaminski (vocals, guitar), Phil Martin (bass, vocals), and Rob Schuster (drums) gained a small but faithful following that warranted repeated gigs at Lorain venues like Déjà vu. 2009’s Silhouettes & Syllables showed so much growth for the band that a name change was practically necessary. Now, with Long Way Down, Stalemate hit their stride.
Recorded at Upper Room Studio in Elyria and self-produced by the band, Long Way Down is a hook-laden indie masterpiece whose thirteen tracks would—in an ideal world—make radio playlists alongside hits by Daughtry, Nickelback, and Coldplay. The Doug Bittner mix is clean and breathes well, making the most of Kaminski’s deft guitar work and vocal harmonies, layering the sounds over Martin’s sturdy bass and Schuster’s crackerjack percussion without crowding the sonic spectrum.
Perhaps the greatest tip of the hat any fellow musician or reviewer could give Bittner and the boys would be to say, “This is how I would want my album to sound.”
Opener “Thanks for Nothing” establishes themes we’ll hear throughout Long Way Down as well and introducing the musical palette from which Kaminski and co. will draw. It’s an upbeat cut boasting a slinky guitar riff, over which our disenfranchised narrator protests the start of another day that will invariably leave him “suckered into somebody’s plan.” Kaminski’s guitars shift from clean and controlled to dirty and distorted, as if musically mimicking the mood swing. It’s the first of many samplings of cynicism across the disc, but fortunately there’s a lot of hope and resilience in the lyrics to prevent the proceedings from sounding too jaded.
“No Way Out” finds our guy asserting himself, first over Replacements-like jangle pop—but then over a heavy, Nirvana-esque refrain. The immediately accessible “Say Anything” catches Kaminski’s character feeling self-conscious about his pessimistic worldview. Schuster’s drums usher in a stuttering staccato rhythm that bolster’s Kaminski’s fuzzy guitar riffs and Thin Lizzy licks. “I seem to focus on the negatives…and losses in my life,” recognizes the lovesick singer.
“Underground” finds tension in the juxtaposition of Kaminski’s deft chords and single-string bends. Someone delivers a monologue in the left channel in observation of night and its incipient risks; a police siren warbles in the distance. “Visitors” expounds upon the dreamy atmosphere with oscillating synth and a pneumatic, pulsating rhythm at its midsection. “In this crowd communications last a lifetime,” sings Kaminski. “We’ll go where others cannot go.” The track bears a dark aloofness that recalls Joy Division and early U2, whose streets may not have names but are dimly-lit, debris-strewn, and rife with danger.
Things start looking up—psychologically speaking—on carpe diem anthem “Opportunity Knocks.” Here, Kaminski extols the virtue of “making the most” of every moment, even to the point of obsession. The bright, sparkly guitar manifests the patience we all should espouse more often, lest we feel overwhelmed, or—as Kaminski puts it—“waiting for life to bury” us. “Hot Mess” plays like spy music on steroids, with throbbing bass underscoring the portrait of a “city on a flatline” where “nothing is ever perfect.” This track in particular probably plays well live for the band, the energy inherent in Kaminski’s searing guitar breaks transcending its in-studio capture.
Tambourine and keyboards decorate the pleasant pop of “Never Really Knew,” a self-reflection whereon Kaminski muses (as we all do) the fleeting nature of contentment. It’s a clever examination of living in an ideal world—of living a perfect life where everything is as it is supposed to be or as one hopes it would be—verses accepting the cold reality of providence and chance (a verse here also provides the album title). “There’s got to be a better way” becomes the mantra informing follow-up track “Second Wind,” which has Kaminski siphoning the positive mental attitude heard previously in “Opportunity Knocks.” Schuster’s cymbals crash throughout the fast, heavy track, whose rebel vocalist seeks more out of life than “waking up to fall asleep again.”
“Harvey Pekar” distills Kaminski’s arguments into the slouchy frame of the middle-aged everyman, manifested here by the late, great comic book author (American Splendor). Stalemate’s acoustic guitars, descending keyboard line, and gentle glock notes bespeak a man who is quite alright being himself—even if it means wallowing in worry.
Long Way Down’s shortest track is followed by the longest (and last). The loping “Miles Away” coalesces and recedes with gentle finger-picking, but the four minutes in between is populated with somber synth and a nimble bass segue. It reads like a trucker song, what with Kaminski’s sustained two-word chorus mournfully imparting the distance between the singer and his imagined (or not), estranged paramour. “Everyone knows where you’ve been,” he tells her. “You don’t have to lie anymore.”
Stalemate’s sophomore effort can be counted among the best regional releases of the last five years (at least). Long Way Down is artful alt-rock with pop and Americana leanings. There’s a great deal of subtext to Kaminski’s words, from breakups and layoffs to faith and fortitude, all couched within a tight rhythmic pocket and marinated with colorful guitar bits that add rather than detract from the material.. If Stalemate are like Foo Fighters meet REM (and they are), then this disc is The Color and The Shape collides with Automatic for the People.