"The Setup," the first track on Heroes and Villains' debut, Turn Your Swords, introduces the listener to a character by way of the midrange harmonies of vocalists Adam Raitano and Maranda Dabel. "He's a man/ He's a man/ And he seems to understand what it's for/ All is fair in love and war." Raitano and Dabel here serve as the Greek chorus, giving the listener a little background for the story that the band will soon unfurl. That's right. Heroes and Villains has, with its debut LP, created an audio soundtrack to a nonexistent musical about love and war. Readers would be forgiven for thinking that this is a bad idea. Mainly because it is, resulting in one of the greatest disappointments in Portland music this year.
And I don't say that lightly. Since forming early last year, this quintet has continually impressed me with both its musical sensibility and adventurousness. It began when I first heard an MP3 of the band's fantastic parlor-pop rag "Color Coded," and continued through its promising 5 Song EP—featuring ballsy three-part harmonies, a little Dixieland flavor and a praiseworthy cover of Tom Waits' "Tom Traubert's Blues"—to the band's show-topping performance of Ween's "Buenas Tardes Amigo" at last year's Night of the Murder Ballad. The band's eyes were big and its potential great, but something went wrong between ambition and ability.
The aim of Turn Your Swords, as far as I can tell, is to tell the story of a man (played by Raitano) who left for war and the woman (played by Dabel) he left behind. After some existential crisis, the soldier returns home to his loved one, but apparently has turned into a huge prick. The two are eventually driven apart and live in their own personal hells; he haunted by the ghosts of soldiers, her by the ghosts of past lovers.
That might not even be the plot, though. The storyline is so incredibly vague, suffering from moments of muffled delivery and elliptical lyricism, that it's hard to follow and is ultimately boring.
Adding to the album's boredom quotient is underwhelming instrumental arrangements and the plodding nature of the dozens of musical interludes here. Anyone familiar with musicals (and it's OK if you're not) knows that these interludes are the moments in the production where vocal exposition gives way to mute action, where the characters advance the polot and the music helps to provide the tone. That doesn't happen here. Instead, the Heroes and Villains crew stalls at every interlude, its repetitive bum-bum-bum-bums and da-da-da-das more closely resembling the sound of a car ignition failing to turn over than any sort of emotional journey.
The greatest disappointment here, though, is that this band of charismatic musicians has apparently sacrificed its sense of humor in order to create this tragic tragedy. There is hope for respite in the title of the album's final track, "Reckoning w/Punchline," but that is dashed as soon as the heavy-handed punchline (everybody is judged the same in the afterlife) is delivered.
All I wanted was a good album. But all I got was this crummy lesson.
Heroes and Villains plays with Nick Jaina and Horse Feathers, Friday, Sept. 22, at Dante's. 9:30 pm. $7. 21+.