Indie rock, like the punk rock that spawned it, has often been the victim of its greatest strength — letting talent take a back seat to youthful exuberance, volume and a catchy chorus. Thankfully, the members of Hoboken, New Jersey’s Ditch Croaker are true masters of their art: musicians first, indie rock band second. Like the more famous bands it resembles — Apples In Stereo, Neutral Milk Hotel, even Sebadoh — Ditch Croaker is that kind of great, backwards-looking-but-forward-thinking pop band that makes you want to run out, buy a Strat and start your own band. They just make it look so damn easy.
Even on their early releases, without the benefit of the major-label recording budget for Secrets of the Mule, the trio’s perfectionism and technical-mindedness shines through. This is a band that makes no excuses for wanting to sound great. Tim Newman (guitar/vocals), Tim Barnes (drums) and Floyd (bass) are connoisseurs of the neatly turned phrase, the fuzzbox that kicks in at just the right time, the sing-along chorus that sounds just right in three-part harmony. This is important, for the band relies on no gimmicks to enhance what are, fortunately, great songs — catchy and engaging, infused with just enough melancholy not to be overly sweet. When they sing, on “Second Fiddle,” “Texas long and California high/Going to cross the distance to see you then/Learning to play second fiddle,” you know this is the kind of thing undergrads in dorm rooms all over New England are kicking themselves for not coming up with first.
On their first couple of EPs, Ditch Croaker flirts with the kind of overdriven, fuzzy pop that put cities like Boston and Chapel Hill on the alt-rock map. Chimpfactor’s “Monkey Wild” and “Sweet Lucy” should be heard in a car on a summer day, driving fast, with the volume up to 11. Secrets of the Mule has a solemnity that, while always present in the group’s songwriting, is newly prominent. Songs like “The Pimp” (“Never as cool as when it begins/Something always shatters the recompense/Fearless loathers don’t give a damn/We’re just witnesses again”) and “Mellow Fellows” (“Weaned upon the dirty details/Weaving different stories of betrayal/We’ve been sneaking out while you were gone”) practically drip with the resignation that comes with the onset of change. Maybe the future looks okay, but the heady, youthful past will soon be a distant memory.
Ditch Croaker’s finest hour yet is Secrets of the Mule‘s “Library Shrine,” a tribute to their Hoboken homeboy (and labelmate), Frank Sinatra: “The birthplace of the Chairman covered with snow and sleet/Walking over to the library shrine with his picture on the wall/Oh, how they’ll miss him.”