'Color TV' Review: 15 years on, the iconic Dramarama still sound as cutting-edge, vibrant and emotive as ever
Bonafide legends of the alt-rock scene, Dramarama has returned with 'Color TV', their seventh full-length album and first record in over 15 years. Hailed for their brand of gritty power pop and electric punk energy during their heydays, Dramarama has managed to not only retain but also reinforce the cutting edge that made them so popular back in the 1980s. With the release of 'Color TV', the iconic quintet consisting of John Easdale (singer, songwriter), Mark Englert (lead, rhythm guitar), Peter Wood (lead, rhythm guitar), Mike Davis (bass), and Tony Snow (drums) have returned to showcase their vibrant, colorful wares once again for a new generation of music lovers.
“It’s a collection of tunes I wrote over the last 20-odd years. There are certain themes running through the album like truth, love, and the modern world,” vocalist John Easdale explained. “A few of the older songs center around my struggles with addiction, it’s sort of classic subject matter for us.” The band's legendary status is certainly classic subject matter itself. Their debut album, 'Cinéma Vérité' released in 1985, prompting New Jersey natives John, Peter, and Mark to move to Los Angeles, buoyed by the acclaim they were receiving for what remains their best-known song, 'Anything, Anything (I’ll Give You)'.
That anthemic track helped spark the burgeoning alternative rock movement, and was once described as "a raw but buzzy piece of power pop that hangs on urgent and anxious pleas, [with] big-time guitar hooks and melodies that bring to mind the rowdy American bar rock of the Replacements or New York Dolls.” The band followed up on that rousing debut LP with a decade's worth of fan-favorites and served up their last album 'Everybody Dies' in 2005 after a lengthy hiatus. The critical acclaim that emerged in the wake of their legacy is telling. The Chicago Sun-Times labeled them “one of America’s best rock bands,” and the Los Angeles Times heralded Easdale as “one of the finest singer/songwriters of these times.”
And now, after some infrequent recording sessions, the band has assembled a vivid new feat of aural engineering, 'Color TV'. Regarding the album title, Easdale revealed, “When I was four, we got our first color television. It was groundbreaking, life-changing. To have this thing in our living room, the television, so familiar, now with a totally new dimension, was mind-blowing.” That's evidently what Dramarama has set out to emulate with this new album, and the results are spectacular, treating our ears to a sonic template that spans the visible spectrum of the rock music timeline.
The opener 'Beneath The Zenith' kicks off with the sound of an old-school tuning antenna which then swells into amplifier feedback as the song explodes into life. Backed by massively overdriven melodic guitar riffs, the booming beat builds up towards the singalong chorus. "And there's no cure for our disease / The magic words are thanks and please / All the antennas look like trees / And advertisements are the key to everything," sings Easdale in this well-crafted piece of social commentary.
The dark and brooding acoustic guitar-driven 'Up To Here' sees more scathing social commentary from Easdale, this time taking square aim at consumer culture and the current state of the world, with plenty of religious undertones. "Now I lay me down to sleep / If I have a soul, let me keep it / Bury me, but not too deep / In case they find a cure / If the only thing we have to fear is fear / I'm surprised we haven't had it up to here," he laments over wailing guitars.
The chirpy and dreamy track 'The Cassette' sees John dedicate the emotional and nostalgic song to Gregory William Dwinnell, “The same friend who inspired [their album] Everybody Dies.” Alliterative lines are delivered in hushed and reverential tones, as John delivers the moving lines "I miss you" repeatedly over twinkling keyboards and chiming guitars.
'Swamp Song' sounds like it's straight out of the famous delta blues riverlands, as Easdale moans "Give me something" over this funky blues ditty charged with a distinctively retro vibe. 'It's Only Money' is a groove fest set in a classic Rolling Stones mold as the introspective lyrics wax lyrical about the corrupting effects of vices on the things you truly love in life. Both these songs were written during John Easdale's addiction-fuelled days, and he admits "I now clearly hear my own struggle with substance abuse and the guilt of not feeling worthy of the truly good and treasured things and people in my life."
Elsewhere, the record's pulse surges from the maniacal and comical rock ‘n’ roll swing of 'What’s Your Sign' to the old-school dreamy Righteous Brothers vibe of 'Hold Me Tight', a tender love song that shows the multi-faceted nature of Easdale's effortless songwriting. The spirited 'Everyday' is also addressed to a lover, except serving as a word of warning this time —"Run from me, before I crawl to you / Every day makes me feel so happy / Every night drives me up the wall."
'The Only Thing (Stupid/Brilliant)' narrates a soaring tale of loyal partnership, fellowship, and sticking together through thick and thin over the years, an ode to Easdale's loving family. "The inconceivable good fortune I’ve had devoting much of my life to songwriting pales in comparison to the reality that is my personal life. It’s the people who share my life that really matter. My family, including my band brothers — with or without the music, they are my soul," he confided.
The somber and haunting acoustic number 'You, You, You' is once again a semi-autobiographical tale littered with personal references, focusing on the power of love and human connection. As Easdale reveals, it's about fate and destiny, and how "you find the one person who stands by you, regardless."
True to form, Dramarama also uphold their longstanding tradition of being an exemplary cover band, this time paying homage to two iconic and timeless storytellers in their own right, via the Bob Dylan rarity 'Abandoned Love' and the late great Elliott Smith’s 'Half Right'.
Managing to channel all these diverse styles, moods and stories and then streamlining it into a cohesive work of art is no easy feat, yet 'Color TV' ultimately displays Dramarama at their most vibrant and heartfelt, emotive best. “We’re still here after all these years,” John concludes. “Three of us graduated high school together, the others have been with us almost 25 years. We have a lot of shared history. It’s hard to separate our personal lives from the music. I hope people enjoy it. We’re very proud to have our place.”