Album Review – Fifth on the Floor’s “Ashes & Angels”

fifth-on-the-floorFor a couple of years now, a nasty rumor has prevailed on the dirty internet that I would quote “NEVER (in all caps) mention Fifth on the Floor.” Of course the perpetrators of that rumor failed to recognize that before it even started, I was playing the band’s song “Distant Memory Lane” on my KOOK radio show out of Junction, TX at the time. It wasn’t because of some preconceived bias against the band that I decided not to write a review for their last album Dark and Bloody Ground, it was because despite my appreciation for “Distant Memory Lane” and a few of their other songs, I felt Fifth on the Floor’s effort was average. And being Southern rock by their own definition somewhat put it out of my jurisdiction to begin with. I review albums that I can find words for. This requisite precludes many albums from being reviewed, even good and great ones.

Ashes & Angels as a whole is a more solid offering from the Kentucky-based band, but again suffers somewhat from the same issues of their previous work. You get the sense when listening to Fifth on the Floor that they really want to be professional musicians for a living, and work really hard towards that goal. This is opposed to playing music for life, as an undying necessity for sanity and self-preservation that tends to result in wholly original expressions of breathtaking impact on the heart and mind.

Though it wouldn’t be fair to call all Fifth on the Floor’s songs and words cliche, they hover just slightly above this label, residing in well-worn lyrical grooves. In Southern rock this is acceptable, a lot more acceptable than it is in country because Southern rock tends to build out from the guitar riff. But since Fifth on the Floor dabbles in country a lot more than your average Southern rock band, it brings this criticism of lyrical quality into play. At the same time, the new paradigm for Southern rock bands here in 2013 is to be more progressive lyrically, and this is evidenced in bands like Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires, The Alabama Shakes, and Glossary as examples. Fifth on the Floor fits more of the old school classification of Southern rock, but even Lynyrd Skynyrd had their moments of thoughtful and original soliloquy. Fifth on the Floor seems to be trying to achieve moments of depth, and sometimes they do. Sometimes. If they exclusively presented themselves as a “fun band,” that would render deep lyrical criticism as unwarranted.

Shooter Jennings produced this album, and even if you tried you couldn’t get away from that fact. In much of the verbiage and marketing accompanying this album, Shooter’s name is presented before the name of the band or the album. This is pretty uncommon in music, but not unheard of. It is done with T Bone Burnett and a few other producers, but always feels like a disservice and a sign of disrespect to a band. The name of a producer should never be more than an interesting footnote, and never the most forward piece of information presented by a project. In fairness to Shooter Jennings, this is likely not his fault. Label reps and publicists tend to focus in on big names involved in projects to buzz them in the media.

As evidenced by Ashes & Angels, Fifth on the Floor doesn’t need to piggy back off of any name. They are a tight knit group of musician friends with formidable musical skills and a top notch ear for arrangement and composition. Despite the average songwriting effort– an effort that still boast some elevated moments–the appeal for this band rests in their ability to get you to lose yourself in the music. And it could be said that the only reason you recognize the lyrical shortcomings is because the music is so good. The music of songs like “Whiskey” and “Burnin’ Nashville Down” is superb, but the lyrics give you the sense that you’ve heard this one before…a few times before.

There’s a set of very curious musical decisions on Ashes & Angels as well–efforts at boldness that in places are pulled off, and others that make you crook your neck like a dog when they hear a strange sound. In a couple of instances, this album makes you want to outright cover your ears with attention-grabbing incongruent guitar interjections that interrupt the mood and groove of the song. It would be easy to blame Shooter Jennings for these miscues, and they do match the signature of similar elements on Shooter’s last two albums. But we don’t know that to be the case. In the end it’s Fifth on the Floor’s name on the front of the album, and they deserve all credit or blame.

fifth-on-the-floor-ashes-angelsThe song “Shotgun” is going along just fine until the slide guitar begins to careen out-of-control, ending in a dissonant and obnoxiously-loud screech. This same approach rears its ugly head again in “Wild Child” when an extremely loud, high-octave assault of the eardrum transpires out of nowhere. The beginning of “One Big Holiday” is when I finally began to identify with Fifth on the Floor’s songwriting, but then come to discover it is a My Morning Jacket cover, and then here comes this overly-processed guitar scream in what is supposed to be a sincere and subtle song.

Beyond the awfulness of the performances, these elements are way too loud in the mix, more loud than your average guitar solo, like they are meant to be the most prominent ingredient on the album. Instead they constitute the music version of fake hustle. Fifth on the Floor is manned by good players, so why resort to bits and acrobatic music stunts for attention? The instrumental “The Last Opry” may also fall into this category for some, but in this instance the performance is all tone, evoking the mud dripping roots of the music in a rousing and engulfing experience of sound. This was the approach some of the other solos begged for, but instead received the Steve Vai stunt guitar treatment.

One of the greatest moments in Ashes & Angels is when the angelic Rachel Brooke lends her voice to possibly the album’s most well-written song “Wine.” If anyone needed yet another piece of evidence that Rachel Brooke should be bestowing her tone to music projects far and wide, here it is, and the lyrics of the song rise up to meet Rachel’s timeless contribution. But her duet partner and Fifth on the Floor’s primary vocalist Justin Wells, who throughout the album delivers really energetic performances, gets unnecessarily timid around Rachel, making an uninspired and eepish counterpart instead of meeting Rachel’s challenge. Maybe Justin didn’t want to get in her way, but if that was the case, he shouldn’t have sung at all instead of stumbling around with the task.

Yes, I have a lot of criticisms of this album, but in the end music is there to be enjoyed, and when skipping over certain decisions pertaining to this album, Ashes & Angels is a very enjoyable work, maybe even more enjoyable than the heady poeticism of some of the more progressive Southern rock bands. Like all Southern rock bands must possess, there’s a kinship here amongst Fifth on the Floor’s members that translates into their songs and recordings, giving them an infectious and fun vibe. This is music you feel a part of. It is easy to identify with and relate to. Fifth on the Floor possess an intuitive sense of what sounds good to the Southern ear, and an elevated musical skill set to pull it off.

“Whiskey” is a really enjoyable, straightforward country jam that you can’t help but get your arms swinging to. The aforementioned “The Last Opry” might be one of the album’s best autonomous performances. “Wine” is one for the ages, and may have been even without Rachel Brooke’s participation, as would be “One Big Holiday” sans the synthesized guitar solo.

But I want more from this band. There’s too much music, and too many bands out there right now to be nothing less than wholly original and strikingly bold. And not bold with strange, risky wank-off guitar moments, but with deep down expressions evoked from the inner depths of the human soul–expressions that meet the music Fifth on the Floor is throwing down. 2013 is not the year of the guitar, it is the year of the song.

In the end, there’s more to like on this album then there is to not like.

1 1/4 of 2 guns up.

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