Review: Tris McCall – Shootout at the Sugar Factory

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Originally published in Delusions of Adequacy Nov. 10, 2003

One walking through the streets of New Jersey would not necessarily imagine Tris McCall’s brand of synth-driven, dance floor-conscious indie rock as a likely soundtrack for the state. Unlike the dense and strangely charming urban patchwork of the Garden State’s Northern Hemisphere, McCall’s music is too planned, clean, and composed to be viewed as an artistic mirror for the landscape. In short, it lacks all of the bumps and cracks and ill-planned beauty that can make much of New Jersey’s urban enclaves so oddly inviting and unique in the first place. That being said, though, McCall has crafted 10 songs on his second record — the wonderfully titled Shootout at the Sugar Factory -- that do speak to one alarmingly characteristic trait of the state: its lack of a coherent identity.

New York has its empire, and neighboring Pennsylvania is a land so vast that it is filled with cultural and historical context. But New Jersey is the oddball middle child of the tri-state area, somehow always struggling to define itself as a cohesive whole despite the factions at odds within it. McCall either has an intrinsic sense of this collective identity struggle or he’s stumbled on to the theme by sheer force of luck. Listening to the way the longtime Hudson County resident tosses the ingredients of countless genres and subcultures into his musical centrifuge, and plows the fertile ground of some of the state’s more amusing themes, your money’s best placed on the former.

On the record, McCall is joined by more than a dozen accomplices in crafting a frighteningly addictive mix of synthetic pop soundscapes, club-ready electronica, and quirky rock freakouts. There’s a lot on display here, from disco-tinged funk exercises (“Dancing to Architecture,” “Go Back to West New York”) and AOR-friendly electro-pop (“A Commuter’s Prayer”) to Devo-inspired rock insanity (“The Man From Nantucket,” “The Night Bus”), Latin-influenced fare (“Robert Menendez Basta Ya!”), and quirky musical moral lessons (“Another Public Service Announcement”). McCall and company manage to carry the torch notably on each of the record’s self-described “musical impressions” of Hudson County, showing a willingness to play with the light-hearted side of the material — as well as the genres they’re referencing — while still taking it seriously as artistic content. It’s both strange and refreshing to hear musicians work their way through synth-heavy numbers without turning to the audience and winking or playing up songs as self-referential inside jokes.

Of particular note here is how McCall can move, often without stumbling, from the fun (i.e., the melodramatic Space Invaders intro to the album’s opening track) to the more straight-faced or intense (that song’s closing minute, with its pounding refrains). That doesn’t mean McCall is by any means cold, calculated or stoic. Quite the opposite, Shootout at the Sugar Factory shines brightest when it’s willing to tap its feet with the listener and have a good time. McCall’s sense of humor, clever asides, and skewed observations may be one of the strongest assets to the record’s ability to get the listener engaged by lightening them up and just playing with them.

For examples, you can pull lyrics from nearly every song on Shootout at the Sugar Factory. On the opening track, McCall literally roars his undying allegiance to the Garden State, stating with a smirk perhaps, “If I die before I wake / Scatter my ashes on the New Jersey Turnpike.” Elsewhere, on “A Commuter’s Prayer,” he tries to make light about his uneasiness of post-9/11 life so close to Ground Zero. “The alerts are raised to orange, staring in the abyss / And I know that some get bizarre enjoyment out of this,” he sings. “I take no comfort in the sound of the police / Lord, won’t you get me through Lincoln Tunnel in one piece?” Later, he goes a step or two further, intoning, “I freak out / at every little rash / And they’re stopping everybody with a moustache.” It’s hardly one of the most biting commentaries you’ll ever read of Tom Ridge or the panic-panic-panic of the War on Terrorism, but it’s an interesting way of relating to the anxieties that have become commonplace in many of us.

For a bit of the over-the-top, McCall offers “Another Public Service Announcement,” a Sesame Street acoustic lesson that reminds residents of Union City to not litter and take pride in their home turf. The lyrics to the track — the only one on the record without McCall’s crafty synth work in the spotlight — are so ridiculous, one can’t help but laugh. Another choice bit comes in “The Man From Nantucket” when, right before a tension-building guitar/keyboard/drum breakdown, someone yells, “I express myself with my organ!” Yes, well, it isn’t Shakespeare.

What sticks when the last track of Shootout at the Sugar Factory stops, though, is the music, which — despite being grounded in some odd footings — ages and grows well with each passing listen. McCall may be a bit of a tongue-in-cheek satirist with a lot of Elfman leanings, but he ultimately knows how to create engaging melodies that will follow you as closely as the factory emissions that cling to stretches of his fabled New Jersey Turnpike.

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