One of the good things about dreading the worst is that you won't easily be disappointed. But as that middle-class punk in Repo Man said, "It...still...hurts!"
Now, I am a Sam fan, don't get me wrong. I loved the first (proper) ep and very much liked We Were Corn In A Flake. I just felt that the latter (and accompanying live show) represented a musical approach with a short shelf-life, and unfortunately Chemical City does very little to disabuse me of that impression. I haven't read any reviews of this album yet, as is my habit, but just on the off-chance that the words "prog" and "rock" show up in a few of them, I pre-emptively shout "nonsense." A tendency toward long-windedness aside, it's the same fish here, just in different wrappings; or rather, the same beardy scruff with bedroom eyes, just wearing a different t-shirt and playing a little more electric guitar. SR still has his Dylan fetish and he still likes writing and singing shuffle-beat rhythms.
There's always been this pull between the popster and the old-school rocker in Roberts (probably more apparent live than in the studio). On his earlier stuff, this added interest and tension, but here, when he takes the hippie-freak route of longer songs with looser structures, things tend to fall flat. As the yobs say, he's gotta have the hooks! And some economy. The production on the album's better than on WWBIAF; it's harder-driving and less lo-fi. His band, intact bar the drummer from his previous tour, is very energetic and together when they rock out old-school, but not virtuosic, and they don't produce a sound with a lot of internal detail. I find this diminishes the effect of the ensemble playing and crescendos after a while [what are you writing for, Gramophone?--ed]. In any case, definitely an album for high-volume listening, if it's to be listened to at all.
I don't think it's any coincidence that the tracks I like best--two rockers, "Bootleg Saint" and "With A Bullet" and two quieter numbers, "Bridge To Nowhere" and "Uprising Down Under"--are the ones that are the most concise. "Bootleg Saint" is a slow, grungy scorcher with great hooks that begs to be turned up to the proverbial 11. Should be a hit with the stoner crowd. "Bridge" and "Uprising" contain echoes of "No Sleep" and "Taj Mahal" respectively from Flame, and the former would be a good choice for a single, with its bouncy rhythm, nice sing-along chorus and jangly acoustic guitar. "With A Bullet" has a much heavier feel than anything off previous records and balances control and hell-for-leather really well, as well as having some great arrangement and guitar.
The rest of the package ranges from okay to not so great. The pseudo-mystical "The Gate" opens the disc I suppose as a statement of intent, and it's half-successful. It has an attractive energy, but the lyrics are dumb, and the simple chord sequences combined with the loosey-goosey structure create an exemplar of muscle over brains. Smoking a spliff might up the enjoyment factor on this one. "Mind Flood" shows off Roberts' characteristic melodic facility and easy vocal patter, but goes on too long with a meandering instrumental outtro. "Mystified, Heavy" is alright but a bit stiff, particularly on the vocal front. Roberts' lack of variation in vocal delivery is a problem in a couple of places, actually, but particularly on the piano-and-vocals-only finale "A Stone Would Cry Out," which is inoffensive but about as exciting as this. The album low-points are the limp and humourless "An American Draft Dodger In Thunder Bay," and particularly "The Resistance," a definite case of trying too hard whose big musical statement is a switch to double-time. Nice acoustic-y finale part, though, if you haven't hit the fast-forward button already.
Flame wasn't a perfect album by any means, but it had a vibrancy and naivete that helped it get past the occasional duff bit (e.g., "On The Run"). Chemical City is more stylistically cohesive but in the end it just doesn't have enough attention to detail and craft to compensate for the ponderousness. Medium-to-big disappointment.
P.S. If you think I'm being overly critical, note that I didn't take one shot at the ridiculous band photo.