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Music Review: Riverboat Gamblers – Underneath the Owl

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On Underneath the Owl, Riverboat Gamblers play catchy punk rock with some fancy polish on it – to bring it out of the basement. The Riverboat Gamblers are a group in the vein of No Use For a Name and Fall Out Boy, with rapid-fire drum beats and big guitar riffs and they lay down some solid beats to make you smile.

The problem with Underneath the Owl — the second Riverboaters release on Volcom and their sixth album overall — is it’s a bit too polished. It lacks the sweaty, feedback-driven bounciness of their previous records and live show. There are some nice tracks on this album though, powerful vocals from singer Mike Wiebe, and lyrics that are witty, fast, thoughtful wordplays, but the album lacks some heart and some messiness. It sounds too produced and more like Sum 41 than the Dead Kennedys.

The new extra polish on the Riverboaters' sound is somewhat understandable since they have been aboard the Warped Tours in recent years and sharing the stage with a lot of pop/punk bands that lean more toward pop. Underneath the Owl gets a little better with additional listens, but the initial over-produced sugary feel sticks to you.

While Riverboat Gamblers are still far superior to many of their Warped Tour counterparts they are pulling their punches on Underneath the Owl instead of hitting you on the chin with a nice follow-through. If the album just gave way to the punk rock fury in the lyrics then it might soar, but there still are a few high spots.

The album opens nicely with “DissDissDissKissKissKiss” which starts off with a sharp drum beat and driving guitars and lyrics that you could envision a crowd chanting: "Action, action, Kitty, Kitty/ Fast one, fast one / No tip /Hey /Lesson, lesson / Furry belly/ 'Lection, 'lection / Get paid." The third track “Catastrophe” ("We both know this fiasco won't be complete without broken bones") is the grittiest track of the 11 songs on Owl; it is the most powerful rocker and it bleeds swanky hate and disregard. The track “Robots May Break Your Heart” is sparse rocker driven by a thumping bassline and decorated with keyboard sounds, “Steer Clear” is a good college rock band song about breaking up with a girl (the best songs are always bout girls) with the lyrics sung/spoken as a plaintive description of a night on the town: "I'm so so so so so so so indecisive / I'm making compromises / If I just stay in, I'm alone again / If I go out what's the chances I see you and him."

The album ends with “Victory Lap” a song about the band being on tour and having fun. It's a cool, slice of life song about a rock band and it has some good, sweat-drenched guitar solos and loud drum fills that can definitely get your neck moving, but the refrain is kind of hokey and the song is uneven, powerful in places and thrown away in others. It also ends abruptly and leaves you unfulfilled.

“Victory Lap” is representative of Underneath the Owl as a whole: a good album overall, with spots of awesome. If the band decided to dig into the grimy dirt floors of the small rock clubs across the U.S.A., or if they decided to expand more by bringing in some softer sounds and instruments to accentuate their music, going full force with it and dealing out a unique slow song or two, they would be better. Instead they make no decision and straddle the line and don’t accomplish either punk or prettiness extremely well. It is only sad, because they probably can master either, if they try with all their heart.

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