I've been ambushed one too many times during my tenure here at Punknews.
Ambushed by terrible music hidden behind stellar album art. Ambushed by terrible music hidden behind the past reputation of a band's solid output. Ambushed by terrible music hidden behind those oh-so-tricky "recommended if you like" tags. I suppose, then, that it's all the sweeter when a relatively unknown, unheralded band comes in and surprises the hell out of me in the best way possible.
Track a Tiger have done just that with their junior effort, I Felt the Bullet Hit .
The Chicago quintet puts its best foot forward on the opener, "Don't Let the Nightlight Dance," as the back-and-forth vocals of Jim Vallet and Mary Jane Lee give off a warm, enveloping feel in coasting across the light distortion and gorgeous undercurrent provided by Vallet and guitarist Adam Smith. The whimsical song has just the right amount of strength, and when Lee's gorgeous falsetto comes over the top of Vallet's understated baritone, it's a perfect marriage of sounds. Voices like Lee's don't come around very often, and with the perfect amount of tact she's able to flesh every single song out into something truly beautiful.
What the band offers in beauty it matches in diversity. The light, down-south twang of "Always Untrue" follows "Don't Let the Nightlight Dance" flawlessly. The delicate pitter-patter coming from drummer Mike Roth's kit sets a perfect stage for Vallet's crooning in the two-and-a-half minute jaunt. Just two songs in and Track a Tiger have established their two greatest strengths: diversity and continuity. No matter the style or tempo, each of the album's 12 songs flow brilliantly into the next.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the keyboard-infused "Bullet" sounds so perfectly in place. Lee's fingers move up and down the keyboard, and the band is able to build from that with clean chord progressions and tactful drumming. And whereas the juxtaposition of Vallet and Lee is what carries most of the album, it's the instrumentation that tells Bullet's story. The short verses are followed up by upbeat, vocal-less rhythms in the chorus, a clever songwriting twist that upon hearing you'll wonder why more bands don't employ it. The short answer is that most bands aren't talented enough. Most bands aren't confident enough in each of its members to not lean so heavily on the vocalist(s) and most bands don't have the charm.
And that charm can make all the difference.
Ending on a high note, "Heart" is Track a Tiger in peak form. Led in by gradually loudening string work, Vallet and Lee combine for a beautiful, piano-assisted track ripe with imagery. As the pair sings "I felt the bullet hit my heart, and all at once it felt so calm / It's in too deep to cut it out, I just ran through another dream with you," the track takes on such a tranquil quality that the subsequent acoustic picking and piano strokes takes you completely away before a dazzling string arrangement finalizes the record.
To say Track a Tiger are without peers would be to put them on too lofty a pedestal, and to say they are fantastic would be to sell them short. Suffice to say that this is a band so comfortably in its niche that the comfort is transferred to the listener.
What a surprise indeed.