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Beyond Broken
Artist: 39 Stripes
Label: Hollar Records
Length: 10 tracks (34:48)

In his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul lauds the benefits of becoming all things to all people. Whether Steve Henderlong and his cohorts in the Tampa-based outfit, 39 Stripes, consciously subscribe to the venerable evangelist’s take on human relations or not, they certainly approach their full-length debut from an all-inclusive angle. Indeed, following in the footsteps of the Saving Me A Place (2002) and Burn (2005) EPs, the quintet’s latest, ten-song, offering takes great care to offer a little something for everyone in the pop/rock-loving crowd.

The well-written title cut fits in nicely alongside radio-ready modern rockers like Daughtry, Fuel and 3 Doors Down. The equally pleasing “My Desire” would probably do equally vigorous business on most late ‘70s/‘80s-leaning lite rock stations. The energizing, keyboard-laden “Saving Me a Place” could well have been a mainstay during MTV’s inaugural year when videos from British post-punk and new wave groups  ruled the roost. And the superbly forceful boogie-rock of “Mustard Seed” offers just the tonic for anyone in the salt-and-pepper crowd who ever stood in front of their parents full-length mirror and played air guitar along to artists like Petra, Winger, or pretty much any artist produced by John and Dino Elefante between 1986 and 1993.

Of course, all the genre hopping in the world is only so much flash and misdirection if the tracks themselves don't bear up to close inspection. Reassuringly for those auditioning the Stripesmens’ freshman offering, the more carefully they scrutinize the lion’s share of the Broken album, the more handsome their reward becomes. The title song’s language (Sometimes we have to break/ To see how the pieces fit/ So perfectly) is particularly clever and insightful. Just as striking is the beautifully picturesque language of “Not by My” (You’re pouring me out/ I’m drinking you in/ Until there’s nothing left but you). 

The instrumental section is likewise full of pleasant niceties for those willing to invest the time and project to unearth them. The spritely finger-picked guitar work on the acoustic version of "Saving Me a Place" is both haunting and sublime – one of the rare cases where an alternate rendition stands on its own as a distinct entity rather than being merely tacked-on filler at the end of a disc. In the same way, entries like "Not by My" are full enough of little sonic flourishes and interesting background effects to ensure that those who tire easily of relentless guitar and vocal histrionics remain interested.

The above plaudits notwithstanding, Broken comes in just shy of a slam dunk. While the bracing instrumental sections of “Mustard Seed” and “Place” work to pull attention from Henderlongs’s singing, his vocal shortfalls, while hardly an out-and-out liability, are nevertheless pulled into slightly sharper focus on slower material like “Perfect World” and “Blind.” Similarly, the wording of “Wake Up” (Your life has just begun/ Stare into the eyes of the Son) and “Saving Me a Place” (Transcending time and space/ We’ll be together face to face) isn’t likely to net the band any literary awards. None of these caveats are weighty enough, though, to come close to sinking the ship. And, taken against the backdrop of the group’s enthusiastic delivery, shimmering instrumental work and rock-solid mastery of hook and melody, any such objections seem far less substantial. While the inaugural effort certainly leaves room for both improvement and growth on the part of its creators, it nonetheless casts them in a most favorable light and offers a decidedly positive outlook for the releases which will follow it.

– Bert Gangl, The Phantom Tollbooth (12/10/2010)


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