The Strange Boys specialize in abrasive, love-it-or-hate-it stabs at greasy R&B cut with blown-out psychedelic screeches. It’s like a hybrid of Doug Sahm and Roky Erickson, and it’s a pretty thrilling mix when the Austin band pulls it off, and even sometimes when it doesn’t. So the cleanly recorded, piano-heavy Live Music is not only a shocking change in direction, but also sort of wrong; the absence of sonic violence and impenetrable murk has made the Strange Boys sound unexpectedly emaciated and bloodless.
The improved clarity of Live Music isn’t exactly a surprise, given the leap in production between 2009’s ear-splitting debut, The Strange Boys And Girls Club, and last year’s Be Brave. But even Live Music’s best material—the Motown bounce of “Me And You,” the bluesy “Omnia Boa,” the fractured soul of “Over The River And Through The Woulds”—suffers from a conspicuous lack of spit and gusto. As for the weaker songs, The Strange Boys are strangely conventional, like on the wan “Walking Two By Two” and the positively soft “Doueh,” a lightly funky pop number that veers dangerously close to John Mayer territory. Making matters worse are Ryan Sambol’s strangled-cat vocals; already one of the Strange Boys’ weakness, Sambol’s ineffectual mewling is even more irritating when it’s placed front and center in the mix of Live Music. It’s a voice that begs to be buried in a blur of clanging guitars—as does the rest of Live Music.