Actionslacks is the diligent straight-C student of rock, the kid who, despite studying for every test, stays so damn average it hurts. If everything goes right and no one is trying too hard, the Berkeley trio is capable of good music. However, Actionslacks spent the better part of a decade assembling a bland, impersonal discography marked by poor arrangements and song choices, burnished occasionally by brief snatches of promise.
The debut is a patchy jumble of awkward song structures, muddled production and shaky performances. Singer/guitarist Tim Scanlin, bassist Mark Wijsen and drummer Martin Kelly clearly needed more time to hone their chops and sound, essentially a guitar-based mid-tempo near beer of rock. Wijsen and Kelly are a punchless rhythm section, struggling to stay in synch, while Scanlin’s narrow vocal and emotional range blunt what little personality the sound-alike songs might have had. Much of Too Bright Just Right Good Night dissolves into the joyless musical ether, an inoffensive clatter that would actually be improved by being more aggressively bad. Sure, F students stay ignorant, but the miscreant who cuts class to smoke joints in the woods is inevitably more interesting than any ol’ square.
One Word is no rock ‘n’ roll juggernaut, but it’s an enormous improvement sonically (a simple, crisp sound) and musically (tighter song structures and more cohesive performances). The band plays well within its limitations, producing typical but likable angsty guitar rock, sticking to a thoroughly road-tested formula that suits their talents perfectly. “Self-Conscious Spiel” rumbles and bristles, with a kind of ballsy lead guitar hook the group forced back into its cage on later, tamer efforts. Sharp, tense sounds like the accentuated, pulsing bass drum thump of “The Look” or the squeak of strings on the slow, pretty “Imogene Threw Me Over” act as much-needed foils to Scanlin’s clean-cut voice. Without them, the band flatlines here.
Perhaps Wijsen took the band’s cojones with him when he left (amicably) in 1999, because The Scene’s Out of Sight is a lifeless simulacrum of the previous record, an impenetrably distant and humdrum effort that neither stopgap bassist Aaron Rubin (Mr. T Experience, Samiam) nor co-producers and multi-instrumentalists J. Robbins (Jawbox, Burning Airlines) and Jeff Palmer (Sunny Day Real Estate) could save. It’s as if Kelly and Scanlin had been chomping at the bit to bust out their REO Speedwagon records before Wijsen left. The album is all rounded, shiny edges wrapped in trite mash-note love lyrics, oozing a seemingly half-hearted earnestness. “Tad Loves Kimberly James” crosses particularly far over the blecch threshhold with this boy-band-ready nugget: “Saturday rain comes down / Comes without a sound / And you and me / Love to see / Every drop fall.” (Guitarist Doug Modie and bassist Ross Murray did not play on the album, despite being credited as full band members on the CD booklet. They joined Actionslacks for the ensuing tour, after which Chuck Lindo, who did play on some Scene tracks, took over for Modie.)
Surprisingly, the subsequent leftovers EP is the best work of the band’s career. The two outtakes from The Scene’s Out of Sight (“Annie Oakley” and “Iron Anchor”) are superior to most of the songs on that album, as is a stripped-down live rendition of “I Hope This Makes It Easier for You” and a simplified, revelatory mix of “Shining Jewels” that blows away its clunky predecessor. The only lowlight is a blah cover of Gary Myrick & the Figures’ “She Talks in Stereo,” recorded in 1996 with Wijsen on bass.
Actionslacks completely missed the lesson of the EP, as Full Upright Position returns to the banal barrenness that elicits thoughts of a high school cafeteria or, occasionally, Mr. Mister. Scanlin is still the victim of his limited vocal range and phrasing, using the same few notes and approach on every song, several of which could be the vague, mushy rock theme from a failed teen drama series. The whole affair is so milquetoast that even the unsubtle America-bashing protest song “This Damn Nation” sounds like it’s trying to please the teacher instead of the malcontent in the moth-eaten Black Flag T-shirt. An acoustic version of the album, only available via download from the band’s website, reduces the songs to just Scanlin and his guitar (demos?) to good effect. Better tracks like “33 1/3” get their due with a warmer, more approachable sound, revealing a little personality from a band that, on its full-length discs, has become a weak-willed alternarock machine.