The long haul

Bullyclub’s application for Tenure
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  November 20, 2007
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER: Bullyclub are more self-assured with their fourth full-length release.

Tenure | Released by Bullyclub | with Jose Ayerve’s Nuclear Waste Management Club | at SPACE Gallery, in Portland | Nov 29
Plenty of musicians have been on the Portland music scene longer than Doug Cowan and Bullyclub. Perhaps none of them, however, has stayed on such an even keel — releasing three albums over the course of nine years, there seemed to be a rhythm to the indie-pop-rock outfit’s career arc that never quite arced. Though one of the more respected bands around town among other musicians and our handful of critics, Bullyclub never did seem to gather more than a small and hearty collection of fans.

Yet here we are just a year after 2006’s very good Babbleluck, and Bullyclub have now released the even better Tenure, a statement and celebration of 10 years on the scene with no intention of fading off into the where’d-they-go-agains. Though Cowan and company haven’t changed their overall sound significantly, remaining firmly in the tradition of Paul Westerberg and Alex Chilton, there’s something significantly more self-assured about this album, with a dash more world-weariness and some cynicism thrown in to better satisfy the indie crowd. Where on Babbleluck he might have gone for the upbeat sing-song in a chorus, Cowan here stays lower and grittier; and when he does go for the sing-song and sentimental he quickly changes his mind, as on grammatically challenged but otherwise solid “If I Was a Hammer” (seriously, does no one understand the future subjunctive anymore?). “On any other day,” Cowan sings, seemingly going in for the cheese, “I’d open up in your eyes/And I’d swing away.” But then he finishes with the chorused “If I was a hammer,” repeated like a hammer strike.

And somehow, Cowan’s vocals are just better. How does a vocalist get significantly better on his fourth full-length album? I’m not sure, but he’s clearly taken a big step forward, to the point where once his vocals were fair to middling, they’re now above average and ought to be a draw on par with his songwriting and guitar tone. It’s possible some of the increase is due to a better set of microphones in the studio, or a better mix, but there are a number of recording engineers credited on the disc, from Mark Allan Miller at Slaughterhouse Studios, to former bandmate Jose Ayerve to Acadia Recording’s Marc Bartholomew to Matt Barnard at Stop Penguin Studio (which I’ve got to think is his living room, but maybe not). Rather, I think Cowan somewhere along the way made a point to be more aggressive, or maybe got a little pissed off. Maybe it’s an anomaly. Maybe it’s just a better set of songs more suited to his register. Maybe I’m crazy.

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Related: Portland scene report: November 2, 2007, Fully Bully, Nuclear Waste Management Club + Bullyclub, More more >
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