The Flat Black Chronicles

Mercy Rule

Caulfield Records, 1999

REVIEW BY: Sean McCarthy


Imagine this: You're a member of a very talented trio. You've been toiling at your craft for well over a decade. During that time, you've produced a respectable name for yourself, playing in bars, small clubs and charity events. And after years of playing in these confined, sweaty places and breaking more guitar and bass strings than you can remember, you're rewarded with a record contract.

And after being signed to that record contract, you even manage to land in the "Hot Upcoming Bands" section of Rolling Stone in their year-end issue. Things only get better. You snag a power producer who has made at least one college radio classic. Then, all of a sudden, you hit the ceiling.

The record label decides that rock is no longer as profitable as some other music genres and decides to drop nearly all of the bands on their label, including yours. You begin to endure the flags of red tape as you and your bandmates get passed along to other companies like a beer bong at a frat party. And to rub dust in your eyes, you wind up having to buy back the record you made with that producer and put it out independently - all the while, remaining optimistic that your all too brief brush with the big leagues won't be your last.

This saga is poured out on Mercy Rule's latest album The Flat Black Chronicles, an album that almost never made it to fans' ears. Though not a concept album, the album itself has a general theme of what it means to be a band struggling to break out. And in a weaker sense, the theme also involves the perspective of a music fan.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The trio, made up of husband and wife Heidi Ore on bass and Jon Taylor on guitar, also features Ron Albertson on drums. They have specialized in making tight, catchy pop songs with equally strong vocals. And after getting singed to Relativity (same label that featured Joe Satriani), the band hooked up with producer Lou Giordano.

Giordano is no stranger to bands with power pop smarts. Some bands that have worked with him include the Goo Goo Dolls and Sugar. The producer that gave Copper Blue, its slick, dirty brilliance matched with Ore's powerful vocals and Taylor's driving guitars seemed like a logical pairing.

And it works. The Flat Black Chronicles is Mercy Rule's best moments on CD so far. It wastes no time hooking you in. "Underwhelmed," hits you with Taylor's tight, short guitar hooks as the song is in the perspective of a fan who blows a night as well as some cash to catch a band. "You better make this worth my time right now/ or I'm gonna have to show you how," Ore sings with a threatening tone. It's message is clear: put up or shut up.

The album doesn't let up for a while. "Spark" and "b4u" follow in the same vein as "Underwhelmed." Taylor continuously shows his guitar craft, especially in the galloping opening chords of "b4u," which also features a horn arrangement. While few rock bands can add horns without making their arrangements seem bloated, Giordano keeps them in the background, never allowing them to overshadow the band.

The album slows down a tad with "In A Box," a decent ballad that never seems to fully resonate. By adding a piano, the track seems to be one of the more over-produced songs in the bunch. The other ballad on the album, "Whatever Happens," is far more powerful.

The band's bitterness with record companies and general trends explodes on two of the most hard-rocking songs on the album, "ksuk" and "Break The Band." The former song deals with radio stations who listen more to focus groups than the general concern of the listeners while the latter song deals with companies who shun nurturing a promising band in favor of a quick profit. Gee, think these tracks may be autobiographical? "Break The Band" is also one of the few songs on Flat Black were Anderson is free to let loose on the drums.

The album ends on a satisfying one-two punch. The anti-image song, "Simple Word," includes one of the great sing-along lines of the year as Ore screams, "Let me be who I want to be!" over and over as the structured sound of the band breaks down after 40 minutes of discipline. And the hidden track is an amusing anecdote of a all-night drive that far too many people can probably relate to.

Ore's pregnancy during the recording of Flat Black may be the key reason her voice sounded so full. It could also be attributed to Giordano's studio skills. Either way, Flat Black is Ore's best hour. And while it's not on A&M or Virgin, the album is available on Caulfield Records, a record company whose staff helped Mercy Rule out of the Lincoln club circuit as well as welcomed them back.

Rating: B+

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© 1999 Sean McCarthy and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Caulfield Records, and is used for informational purposes only.