False Starts And Broken Promises, the debut album from Last Man Standing couldn’t be more aptly named. On first listen, it really doesn’t sound like much at all, an odd mish-mash of ’70s influenced MOR that’s really nothing special – rather a let-down for an outfit once called “the best unsigned band in London” by the Guardian.
But don’t let first listens put you off. It’s a grower, slowly burning its way into your affections the more times you give it a chance to do so. Yes, a lot of it is derivative, of everyone from Bowie to Dylan to Steely Dan, and very little of it is going to change music, but that doesn’t make it unpleasant and in fact, the mix of styles keeps it interesting, saving it from disappearing into the background of sounds you’ve heard too many times before.
From the gentle, folksy, almost-instrumental of opener Variation, through the bluesy, White Stripes-alike Queen Kong to the Led Zeppelin soft rock of Waiting for So Long and the cheery, piano pop of The Dean Street Stumble, Max Vanderwolf and his nine-piece collective mix genres from track to track, carrying off each one they attempt with a decent level of competence. If their description of themselves as “Country/Death Metal/Power Pop” on their myspace page sounds confusing, just give them the benefit of the doubt, listen to a few of their tracks and you’ll soon see what they mean.
Country is probably the genre that comes through strongest (if we have to pigeonhole them) however, with a noticeable influence running through most of the tracks, and on the aforementioned Queen Kong and Everything Must Go they get heavy on the blues. The combination does work, although it’s an acquired taste and, if you didn’t have to review the album, why would you be bothered to give them enough opportunities to win you over? They aren’t really doing anything that plenty of other over-staffed, music collectives aren’t. They’re a slightly more American Patrick Wolf, a slightly more normal Arcade Fire but they’re not much more than that, for all the infectious piano riffs of The Climb.
Just in case you’re about to write them off, though, they have roped in some famous(ish) friends to help win you over, including pianist and trumpeter Terry Edwards (late of The Higsons and Butterfield 8) and Desmond Horn (dance producer and founder of NY label HipBone Records, who plays keyboards on A Man Condemned). Robyn Hitchcock lends backing vocals on Go Home and as his own music isn’t a million miles away from what Last Man Standing are doing, this might be a good marketing ploy to draw in his fans.
But why a band that has nine members of its own already needs so many guest stars beggars the question that perhaps they don’t have what it takes themselves to draw you in without such a gimmick. This is perhaps a little unfair on them, but ultimately the album is frustrating and messy, not quite sure what it is or what it wants to be and while it grows the more times I hear it, there’s also a little voice at the back of my head telling me that once I finish this review, I’ll never listen to it again, and it’s a voice I believe.
Nonetheless, they have a good live reputation and they’re about to head off on tour with Bobby Conn, another performer whose style they’ll gel with well – they shouldn’t have any trouble winning over his audiences.
So there they are. Part jazz, part dirty blues, part MOR, part poppish piano riffs. It fits together and it doesn’t, resulting in something that’s listenable but frustrating, inoffensive but not engaging enough either. A mess of a debut from a band who might be better served deciding what they do best and sticking to it. Instead, they’re trying to be all things to all people and end up being not enough of anything. Next time, maybe.