It’s been just over a year since Schooner’s Neighborhood Veins was released, quite possibly to wider and more enthusiastic recognition than the band’s two preceding full-lengths, namely, You Forget About Your Heart (2004) and Hold on Too Tight (2007). Given the ever-growing gaps between albums, the fact that this one attracted as much attention as it did was a reassuring sign that this Durham, NC-based outfit hadn’t been forgotten during its quieter – which isn’t to say dormant – periods and incalculable lineup changes.
And by and large, Neighborhood Veins was and remains an album worthy of enthusiasm. By bringing together tracks like the animatedly angsty “Trap” and the languorous “Nowhere to Wait” under a single title, it leaps back in time to occupy the sonic space between the band’s brief lo-fi debut and the somewhat more relaxed, country-inflected follow-up. Both of those albums have their respective strengths, and any composite has the potential to be even stronger, the way two pure metals can make a more resilient alloy.
There’s something disappointing, then, about the way that compound effect seems to be missing. It isn’t just because “Feel Better,” already issued on the band’s Duck Kee Sessions EP (2010), reappears here in a different form (the revisited version sounds like it’s playing from the apartment two doors down), or that “Ride with Me,” which held the promise of an interesting and apposite Lemonheads cover, turns out to be a so-so original. It’s more that there’s a fragmented, neither-fish-nor-fowl feel to Neighborhood Veins, despite the stab at an overarching thematic consistency in the “Veins” and “Neighborhood Veins” free-form instrumentals at the album’s halfway point and conclusion, respectively. As standalone tracks, the eerie psychedelic soul of “Floodlights and Ghosts” or the upbeat, milkshake-thick twang of “Big Mistake” are perfectly fine, perhaps as good as anything in Schooner’s catalogue. But when they’re clustered together with their noise-pop neighbors at the front or their countrified cousins at the back, there’s a noticeable loss of second-act momentum. If you’re a sequential rather than a shuffle listener, everything after “Nowhere to Wait” (three songs plus the closing instrumental) bleeds together, becomes indistinct. This was my impression of the album on first listen, and, unusually, it’s still my impression more than one year on.
What’s odder is that, looking at the anachronistic “side one” and “side two” listings on the reverse of the CD, you get the feeling this ordering was intentional. And while it’s true that the album’s vinyl format – specifically, that compulsory entr’acte that comes with the physical act of flipping the disc -Â would make for a different experience, it’s hard not to feel as though a different sequencing could have held up better across all media.
Still, by taking Neighborhood Veins’ twelve (or ten, rather, depending on your criteria) songs Ã la carte rather than as a set menu, there are several highlights: the drowsy mariachi horns on “Say My Name,” the dissonant, trebly buzz on “Trap” (oddly reminiscent of Archers of Loaf’s “Wrong”), the ghostly baritone backing choir on “It Won’t Matter.” And, of course, there are the signature Schooner elements that seem to transcend the mercurial list of musicians playing alongside frontman Reid Johnson, like the Spector-meets-Motown of “Still in Love” and the brooding doo-wop found on “Floodlights and Ghosts.” That alone puts Neighborhood Veins head and shoulders above the vast majority of releases, but it’s not enough to fully bridge the gap between above average and extraordinary.