The Dambuilders’ records chronicle the progress of a band that, for better or worse, finally seems to have found an identifiable sonic niche in the mid-’90s. Singer/bassist Dave Derby and guitarist Eric Masunaga evolved the group from the Exactones, the name under which they released several homemade cassettes in their native Hawaii. A Young Person’s Guide — recorded in the fiftieth state and released by a German label — unveils the Dambuilders searching high and low for a style. Ironically, its very derivativeness is what makes it such an utter delight, as the group jumps from punk to folk to garage to funk to rock to indie-pop, succeeding charmingly at most of it. The Replacements, Violent Femmes, Talking Heads, Ramones, Cheap Trick, R.E.M., Lemonheads, B-52’s and Marshall Crenshaw are all likely influences; “Radio Is King” even anticipates the arrival of the Gin Blossoms. It’s the only Dambuilders album to feature two guitarists-Masunaga, who also skillfully produced all of the band’s records up to Ruby Red, and Tryan George, whose acoustic work gives the album much of its flavor. Violinist Debbie Fox guested on a couple of tracks and subsequently joined the group.
The Dambuilders relocated to Boston and also toured Europe between A Young Person’s Guide and Geek Lust, resulting in a change of drummers and the departures of George and Fox. Joan Wasser (ex-Heretix/Lotus Eaters) replaced Fox during the recording of Geek Lust, an album that moves the band in a darker, heavier direction, thanks in part to Masunaga’s increasing use of guitar distortion. While some of the songs veer closer to grunge than anything on the debut, the album is nearly as melodic and infectious overall.
With the addition of Kevin March, a superb drummer, the band’s current lineup finally came together on the five-song Tough Guy Problem, which contributes two songs (“Louisiana” and “Idaho”) to the group’s “50 songs for 50 states” project. (The goal is to write one about, or at least titled after, every state of the Union. For those in need of direction, “New Jersey,” “Wyoming” and “Oregon” fill the ’93 7-inch.) On Islington Porn Tapes, the band’s sound continues to grow bigger, darker, more intense and more progressive. The first album seems miles away.
Encendedor, the Dambuilders’ full-length US debut, consists of five tracks (including the excellent single “Shrine”) from Islington Porn Tapes, one from Geek Lust (that album’s intense peak, the Stooges-like “Fur”), Tough Guy‘s “Idaho” and three new ones, of which “Delaware” is the most catchy and “Collective” provides the best glimpse into where the band was headed. As usual, Masunaga’s production is superb.
Don Gehman produced Ruby Red, making everything bigger, pulling Wasser’s violin and backing vocals and March’s drums to the fore. The result is arena-ready hugeness that subverts the band’s sonic variety, especially Masunaga’s guitar work. There are some good songs, and Derby does some nice things vocally — his falsetto on “Down” would give Radiohead’s Thom Yorke a run for his money — but it’s a letdown from a band that has rarely disappointed in the past.