Monday, May 2, 2016

No Sinner - Old Habits Die Hard

It’s curate’s egg time, folks.  In other words, this second album from Vancouver-based Colleen Rennison and co (Rennison/No Sinner – get it?), is a decidedly mixed affair, its virtues compromised by its flaws.
Of the first six tracks on Old Habits Die Hard, only ‘Tryin’ and ‘Hollow’ really hit the mark.  The former has a bright, loping Southern feel, with some trills of piano for extra frills, and a gutsier slide-led interlude by way of contrast.  The latter is a well-balanced, well-paced tale of relationship disappointment, sung with feeling by Rennison, and decorated with some tasteful organ fills.
Colleen Rennison - where'd the rest of the band go?
Pic by Brendan Meadows
The rest, unfortunately, are painted-by-numbers hard rock, with only fleeting glimpses of imagination in the odd riff or guitar fill.  Whether it’s the hackneyed good-time stomp of ‘Saturday Night’, or the naff lyrics of ‘Get It Up’ (the title is the thin end of the wedge, believe me), this is stuff that really should have been weeded out.  “These go up to 11” may be a rock legend, but it was a joke after all, and making it work for real needs more chutzpah and wit than is apparent here.
But then, at the halfway point of the album, they eventually turn a decisive corner with ‘Friend Of Mine’.  The common component in ‘Tryin’ and ‘Hollow’ is a sense of restraint that allows different musical brushstrokes to be accented, and enables Rennison to display the variety of which she’s capable.  And so it is again with ‘Friend Of Mine’ – it may not be a tour de force, but it has enough light and shade to show them off to advantage.
The following ‘Fade Away’ is a belter though.  Propelled by throbbing bass and drums, with tense, brittle interjections of guitar, it puts me in mind of Robert Plant’s ‘Tall Cool One’, though more funky and laid back. Rennison gets imaginative with her vocal too, throwing in twists and yelps, enhanced by surges of echo and a variety of harmonies, some of them hoarsely whispered.  The guitar solo, when it comes along, is a hand-in-glove fit rather than an ego trip.
More exploration follows.  ‘When The Bell Rings’ may be a full on, pounding effort, but it has  an angsty, 21st century quality, with guitar work that ventures beyond the dominant Page influence into Tom Morello territory. ‘Lines On the Highway’, by contrast, is a reflective, piano-led ballad on which Rennison demonstrates that she can lay back and be sensitive to good effect.
‘One More Time’ encompasses shifting moods over its six minutes, ranging from a late 60s wig-out with Moon-like clattering drums, to spooky atmospherics, to some strident, fanfare-like riffing.  Did their upbringing, by any chance, involve exposure to the early work of fellow Canucks Rush?
They close out with the moody blues-rock howl of ‘Mandy Lyn’, all grinding rhythm and scratchy, slithering slide while Rennison holds it back, before a fevered, throw-in-the-kitchen-sink climax.  Which shows that when it’s done right, turning it up to 11 can deliver not just power, but drama too.
In football parlance, Old Habits Die Hard is a game of two halves.  The first half, frustratingly, finds No Sinner struggling to muster a shot on target.  But after half-time they get their act together and finally find their shooting boots.  I’d like to hear what they could do in the hands of a producer prepared to give them some tough love by insisting on more rigorous quality control.

Old Habits Die Hard is released on 20 May.

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