Fervent fans of this website know that I’ve spent a significant amount of digital ink waxing philosophically about the role genres and sub-genres play in how we think about music, especially when artists or groups attempt to incorporate sounds and ideas from multiple genre touch points. Sure, the technical skill required to pull from disparate influences is impressive, but it takes real skill to transmute all of those sonic ingredients into something people actually want to listen to. With Stereo, New York’s Queens County Roots have delivered a solid offering of Americana that deftly pulls from rock, blues, bluegrass, R&B, pop and gospel without feeling overly disjointed.
The pulsing bass drum beat of opener “Heaven Sent” acts as a clarion call to get butts on the dance floor before the tune’s spirited bluegrass riff sets things in motion. The song flits effortlessly between traditional roots and modern rock passages in a fashion reminiscent of legendary Toronto outfit The Noble Rogues.
The musicianship on display is excellent across the board, with slick, tasteful leads from guitarist Marlon Hurt laid over the unflappable groove anchored by drummer Chris Glover and bassist Alex Fedorow. However, it’s clear across all of Stereo that crooner Jesse Maxwell’s soulful vocals are meant to be the star of the show, especially on quirky pop R&B track “Romantic AF.” and the mid tempo, gospel-infused “No Words For it.”
Lyrically, Stereo sticks mostly to the simple, familiar theme of love, both requited and not, with prose engineered to be more in service of the sound of the words rather than the impact of their content. I understand the intent of this record is to get people moving, and that an injection of John Prine-esque existential ennui isn’t in service of that mission, but with Maxwell’s singing the clear focus, a touch more lyrical substance would go a long way to making the songs on Stereo more memorable.
QCR keep the dance party going with “The Message,” a track that best demonstrates Stereo‘s slick production; all of the instrumentation is razor sharp in the mix, including Hope Johnson’s keyboard work that adds a ton of color and body to the track. While the production feels a bit too polished in some places, especially during some of the bluesier numbers that could benefit from a tiny dab of Ian Blurton-style grit, the overall package is high quality.
QCR do hint at a touch of grit in closing track “The Ballad of James Corvus,” quite possibly my favorite song on the album, but is it actually possible that they wrote the main riff without hearing The Tragically Hip’s “New Orlean’s Is Sinking”?
With Stereo, Queens County Roots serve up a slice of Americana that is sure to please fans from across the spectrum of the American musical tradition. It may lack a touch of depth, but sometimes it’s just fine to say “Fuck art, let’s just dance.”
Written by Jesse Gainer
*edited by Danielle Kenedy