Greg: When a band has released a record that firmly establishes their sound and fan base it is practically tempting fate to change things up. Right?
Some would argue that simply changing the sound of a band is enough to even garner the black cloud of “Sell Out”. After all, they “knew them when” and became fans of them “when they were organic and good.” So shouldn’t that constitute legitimate cause for the title?
No. It shouldn’t.
When a band changes their sound it is because they have felt the musical ambition to spread their wings and try something new. Bay Area Indie Demi-gods Rin Tin Tiger have changed their sound and I beg someone to call them a Sell-Out. These guys can beat you down with just a harmonica.
Granted with the latest release from this Golden State trio the days of acoustic busking and novel folk whimsy have passed, it is with an immense step forward that the embrace a new frontier. An electric frontier.
Burial Grounds is eleven tracks of everything I love about Rin Tin Tiger (the writing, the pace, the energy) plugged in, turned up, and, admittedly, a little saucy. There are hints at Mid-90s Alt sensibility among the tracks that stand shoulder to shoulder with folk punk in an entertaining display of the RTT sound. Most notably, in this record, it feels like we can really feel all three pieces to the band outside of their ridiculously fun live sets. The rhythm section of RTT stands up and drops a wallop of a left-hook on the release.
While the instrumental wings of the trio spread in impressive display on Burial Grounds Kevin Sullivan leads another solid sound with great writing that almost becomes anthematic for those just trying to hold their heads above water in today’s world. Case in point, the fun yet thought provoking “Young, bankrupt/can’t afford a therapist/we can’t talk shit/how else we gonna talk about it?” in “Talk Shit.” But there is the beautiful chaos of “Speak With Me” and the home run “Dandelion Dream,” the latter bridging old RTT with the new.
A sense of maturity has settled over the Rin Tin Tiger sound that in no way discounts their previous successes, but more reaches into the chest of the Tiger, rips open the chest, and reveals the heart to all willing to look. Instrumentally exceeding expectation and lyrically transcending, Rin Tin Tiger has changed, but they are hardly, even remotely, near sell out. The sound has noticeably a different path, but the soul of RTT is going strong with yet another remarkable release from one of the most impressive indie bands you can find.
Clay: The natural progression a band goes through their career typically warrants stretching their wings creatively; you evolve or you disappear into obscurity. Sometimes the fan base is along for the ride and other times, you end up with Bob Dylan’s electric guitar experiment. Now, as much as love Rin Tin Tiger, I am not going to make comparisons to Dylan going electric or Clapton going Unplugged. What I will say that when you are as prolific as the San Francisco folk trio, a change of medium is warranted to keep things fresh. You can do all the solo albums or hip-hop crossovers you want, but if in-your-face-indie is your bag, you will try whatever you can to keep the creativity going (hell, we’ve got a bunch of comics and podcasts proving just that).
The thing is, Rin Tin Tiger’s foray into the world of electric guitar in their latest album, Burial Grounds, is not really that far off from where they already were. Kevin Sullivan’s unrestrained poetry, Sean Sullivan going for a walk up and down the neck of his bass, and Andrew Skewes-Cox savant-like time keeping within the bounds of his drum kit are welcome traits the fourth time around. Sure, the album opens with a four-chord plugged in pop summer jam in “Hold You Down” that teases you into thinking that things will never be the same in indie land. But after the boot stomping, raise hell and a harmonica, folkabilly of “Small Cuts That Bleed A Lot,” you realize this what the Sullivans and Fiddler do, and that they have always been an electric band. It’s just that until now, Kevin has channeled it through an acoustic guitar instead of an Epiphone. As the album rolls into “Dandelion Dream,” you realize this natural progression was inevitable; the almost bashful chord progressions that take you through a country road in the summer time could easily play acoustic, but the rich electric tones add just that right touch of emotional depth.
I could not think of a more logical and perfect place for Rin Tin Tiger to go next. The mix of Kevin’s personal and human self-reflection, feel-good indie-folk tempo, and plugged-in sound add a fascinating dimension to this fun-as-hell California trio. Hopefully it gives the band the creative jolt they were looking for and that we’ll be debating the merits of whether or not adding a hurdy-gurdy on their fifth album.
To new frontiers.