There is perhaps nothing more fascinating and potentially disastrous than a band no longer bothered with the status quo, and deciding to play whatever the hell it feels like. Sometimes, this alienates fans; other times, it results in a significant artistic leap forward.
The Pretty Black Chains pulled an abrupt about-face with their new LP, “Awakening.” The Oklahoma City group’s re-emergence as riff-driven, psych rockers is bound to lose some fans who fell in love with its once sharp-as-a-tack, ’60s indie-rock sensibilities.
But is that a bad thing? “I’m done with ‘indie,’” said guitarist Derek Knowlton while folding T-shirts at his Plaza District store, Warpaint Clothing. Saturday’s release party/ cookout will be held in the shop’s back courtyard, and it was during long, lonely hours in Warpaint’s basement when he began toying with a new direction for the band.
“I really just wanted to bring back rock ’n’ roll,” Knowlton said. “In a way, it’s kind of like coming full-circle back to when I started playing in the ’90s. That really was the closest era to the ’70s with psychedelic guitar rock.”
Before, Knowlton and company seemed perpetually on the bubble of writing a breakout single, one that would grace Volkswagen commercials and hipster romantic comedies, but the timing was always a little off. Starting with the act’s roots in The Stock Market Crash, the carefully crafted ballads were half a step behind New Wave’s rise and fall. Then the Chains’ first album was late to the indie-rock surge.
With “Awakenings,” which Saturday’s guests will get free with paid admission, the Chains earnestly are attempting to find themselves within a bigger, more timeless sound based on the skilled musicianship that had been stifled in the restrictive pop-rock formats.
“It felt so good after having to backburner the guitar all these years, playing a sound that didn’t let me play up to my potential,” Knowlton said.
The song that started it all?
“Thorny Crown,” which closes out the album with pinging sitar, bashing drums and agile guitar sweeping over Kellen McGugan’s strutting, Mick Jagger-esque vocals.
“It was the first one I wrote that was more riff-based and more classic, almost ’90s-Jane’s-Addicition feel,” Knowlton said. “Like any artist, I’m really insecure
when I decide to changing directions, so I’m scared of what people will think, whether they will like my idea. We’d just finished another record, and I came to them and said I wanted to 86 the record and go for this new sound.”
The other members followed headlong into a more energetic, virtuosic approach which will work well in rock clubs and music festivals. Like any artistic experiment, it will take a little feeling out, but the Chains are closer than ever to realizing their tremendous potential.
“It’s almost like dating girls,” Knowlton said. “As you get older, you start to find yourself and understand where you want your niche to be, but before that, you’re just searching.”