Review: Dredg – Chuckles and Mr. Squeezy

Alternative rock is a purposefully vague genre: it must be rock music, of course, but the label “alternative” gives it leave to experiment with pretty much any influences that it finds useful. The only qualification seems to be that it stay true to rock’s guitar- and drum-based style of music. Bands as disparate as Coldplay and The Dead Weather or The Killers and Skillet can claim the genre as their own — although genre purists, or those who advocate endless numbers of subgenres, might argue vehemently that “alternative rock” isn’t even a real genre, possibly because of its broadness. One thing seems to be certain about alternative rock, however, and that is that many bands which fall into its spacious circle tend to do well with mainstream fans. Those that do not, however, are generally relegated to the neither-critically-acclaimed-nor-popularly-appreciated stigma, a trap that bands strive to avoid — usually by perfecting a formula that adds up to widespread appeal.

The California alternative rock band Dredg has formed a career over the course of five albums that contradicts this norm. There is a rather sharp division in the middle of their albums: after three experimental (bordering on art rock, one of many alt. rock subgenres) and critically-acclaimed releases in the late-’90s and early-’00s, the band changed for 2009′s concept album The Pariah, The Parrot, The Delusion. They emphasized their progressive rock tendencies, utilized standard song structures, sharpened their production and their tracking, and — most importantly — wrote powerful hooks and singalong choruses not found on their earlier work.

1. Another Tribe
2. Upon Returning
3. The Tent
4. Somebody Is Laughing
5. Down Without A Fight
6. The Ornament
7. The Thought Of Losing You
8. Kalathat
9. Sun Goes Down
10. Where I’ll End Up
11. Before It Began

But unlike their less fortunate brethren, Dredg didn’t accrue countless accusations of “selling out.” On the contrary, many long-time fans claimed that The Pariah was their best album (it was), and even critics were unusually gentle. Perhaps this was because of Dredg’s history as a hard-working indie band, but whatever the case, the band’s updated sound appealed to people all around the spectrum — just not enough of them. The word never quite got out, and Dredg remained one of those relatively unknown alternative rock bands, but in a different league altogether.

For those of us who adored The Pariah, there is good news and bad news concerning Dredg’s fifth release, May 3rd’s Chuckles And Mr. Squeezy. The good news is that the hooks are back, and stronger than ever. The bad news is that there is even less guitar this time around, and many of the songs border on pop-rock for the first time in Dredg’s career. I would refer you to a past Dredg song for context if there were actually one that augured Chuckles. There isn’t.

You won’t get very far with the album if you expect it to be anything you’d want. Rather, approach Chuckles And Mr. Squeezy and its rather grotesque cover art as you would a debut album by a band you’d never heard. Then you’ll begin to hear the magic behind the lilting, pulsing pop of “Another Tribe,” where Gavin Hayes croons “here we go, go again, following all the trends/ it’s become an obsession/ yeah, it’s time to except it.” Perhaps Dredg are following all the trends — the electronic pith of Chuckles certainly syncs with the current indie scene — but even if Chuckles is as much indie pop as progressive rock, the band sure as hell have the talent to make good music in whatever genre they choose. Hopefully it won’t be metal next, however.

The rock isn’t completely gone, however. “Upon Returning” could be a B-side to The Pariah, and closing track “Before It Began” echoes “Information,” but with a synthetic harpsichord and a Slavic sense that invokes Romanian folk music. Maybe that’s not rock in your book, but hey — that’s why they call it “alternative”! And there’s plenty where that came from: “Somebody Is Laughing” uses a solemn electronically-enhanced choir behind a dance beat, “Kalathat” opts for an acoustic guitar to guide a story about “a jaded man” whose “whole life was work and business,” and “Down Without A Fight” plays with electronica and club music, but never lets itself be consumed by those genres.

In the end, Chuckles And Mr. Squeezy, despite its medieval/carnival title, is the most “normal” Dredg album. But it takes both its popular influences and its alternative influences in equal measures, perhaps best expressed on the lead single “The Thought Of Losing You.” The track is one of the year’s most addictive singalong pop-rock numbers, but there is a certain edge to the song that you won’t find on, say, the new Gorillaz album. Dredg’s fifth effort may not be any sort of artistic statement, and it may not even be their best album, but it provides unashamedly good alternative rock music, and for that, it should be commended.