I’ve commented in past reviews at the fragile balance that exists in trying to capture or recreate a live, bootlegged feel in the context of a studio album. The work of some bands seems hindered—hobbled like a bedridden James Caan by a sledge-toting Kathy Bates in Rob Reiner’s film version of Misery—merely by attempting. There’s a measure of incompleteness here that really can be crippling to the experience of certain kinds of music. Furthermore, the shortcomings of the band can be—in some cases—in sharp enough contrast to overshadow the merit of the thing. Houston, Texas four-piece Liquid Casing and their newest release, “A Separate|Divide”, appear to be another such act and album for which this true.
Despite being self-produced in their own Red Flag Studios, “A Separate|Divide” would benefit much from a little more mixing and mastering TLC or the refinement that sometimes can only come from the opinion of an outside producer. What truly might be something of a method-in-the-madness style of performance when seen live is at times muddy and cluttered here. The activity apparent is thus reduced to a set of over-long, one-legged Jazz-Fusion jams—the average song length is six-and-a-half minutes—with a smattering of wordplay and a vague or non-existent sense of direction.
Some grungy, spaced-out parts from guitarist/vocalist Alvaro Rodriguez add texture, as does some of the eclectic (if sometimes overeager or recital-sounding) horn work of saxophonist/keyboardist Okiki Olufokunbi, but this does little to differentiate Liquid Casing from the bands they’re blatantly imitating. Everything from equipment to technique to the album’s song titles (“Non-Linear Solution”, “Alambrista”, “Fingerprint Armada” for example) seems to have been cribbed in part from the gear house and lyric notebooks of The Mars Volta’s virtuoso singer-songwriter Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, and layers of heavily processed effects have been draped over all of it like a gaudy make-up job from a pre-teen trying to pretty up just like Mom does….
Possessing a decidedly satirical, pseudo-political bent, Alvaro Rodriguez’s lyrical outbursts are few (in favor of long-winded instrumental compositions) and—unfortunately—mostly unpleasant. Active music needs active voices or none at all, in my opinion. Sadly, Rodriguez’s vocal delivery is, when we hear it, one of distinct lack of musicality or color. If it weren’t present, Liquid Casing—and the Local-Radio-Band flavor the production quality on “A Separate|Divide” has underscored—may’ve been propelled somewhere toward Promising rather than Unimpressive to this reviewer. Instead, the listening is comparable to a jam with spoken word by Rancid’s Tim Armstrong or maybe an adolescent Tom Waits. That may work for Punk-Thrash-inspired fare and Rollins Band worshippers, but it doesn’t have wings in this wheelhouse.
Drummer John Pitale is a more recent addition to these ranks (He replaced Matt Jackson in 2009), and it can be heard here in more ways than one. Where his rhythm section counterpart, bassist Jim Stettner, is steady and more than a little able to follow and tie up (in his own effects-laden way) the chaos of guitar and horn colliding, Pitale is a piece that doesn’t quite fit. His playing is frequently uneven, heavy-handed in a way that was predictable, uninspiring. I was left unsatisfied waiting for him to mix it up; it had me wondering as I listened if he wasn’t recruited fresh out of high school Jazz band or even church ensemble.
For a group that has been around in one incarnation or another for twenty-plus years, Liquid Casing sounds and feels too much like an entity in its nascent stages, like a basement band still overly devoted to its heroes with just enough funds scrounged together to record or do it themselves. What’s more, the material on “A Separate|Divide” and its flawed production brought to mind hobbyists with enough knowledge to be dangerous rather than seasoned musicians seriously aiming to stretch themselves, their instruments, and/or the genre they mean to represent. There’s a history behind the band, sure, but there isn’t much character in this creation to do that history any kind of justice. My hope is that Rodriguez and his comrades can take some time to find themselves outside of the MP3-formatted comfort zone they’ve parceled out here: Keep learning. Listen to something unfamiliar. Freshen up the bag of tricks, and try again, guys….