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On first listen, Pilgrim, the debut LP from Durham's Red Collar, seems a major departure: After releasing The Hands Up EP two years ago, the Durham quintet (who's since lost keyboardist Andrew Blass to become a quartet) has been winning fans over with the inimitable energy of its frenetic live performances. Hands Up, recorded on the cheap and quick, captured that fervor surprisingly well.
Whether it's through deliberate effort or simply a by-product of moving from DIY recording to producer Brian Paulson's Carrboro studio, Pilgrim lacks much of the rawness that gave Red Collar its reputation: "Tools" isn't quite the brutal maelstrom of maniacal intensity here that it is live, and "Hands Up," one of three EP tracks re-recorded for the full-length, misplaces its old vocal urgency. The guitars still crunch, but they're not as coarse.
Underneath a bit of unexpected polish, though, the familiar energy and rebel spirit remain: Jason Kutchma's snarled anthems lash against picket-fence America, his refrains engineered as shout-along rallying cries for sweaty malcontents. Kutchma reflects on years spent following the status quo and dreams he discarded along the way. Opener "The Commuter," for instance, regrets days lost at the 8-to-5. The band rises steadily from a din of traffic sounds into a fury of guitars and drums. Kutchma attacks the circular logic of "a job that pays for the garage for the car that picks up the kid that watches the kid while I work this job." "We've been working overtime," responds guitarist Mike Jackson again and again, reflecting Red Collar's work ethic (remember, 8-to-5) and the battles of the working stiffs.
Jon Truesdale's skittering hi-hat beat propels the verses of "Hands Up." Kutchma rails against the rat race and "thirty years in my briefcase." Late-album change-up "Tonight" winds a pair of clean-strummed guitars around a programmed beat and offers "one last toast to who I was supposed to be." "Rust Belt Heart," driven by Beth Kutchma's thick bass groove and a scissoring twin guitar assault, couldn't be more timely: Its second verse recounts heavy layoffs and long unemployment lines.
Stocked with highlights, Pilgrim—a dynamic departure that shows Red Collar is as capable of measured albums as it is explosive shows—counts as a triumph. Each of the eight new songs match the high caliber of the Hands Up holdovers. Long-awaited in the Triangle, this top-notch beginning should earn Red Collar some acclaim elsewhere when the band hits the road full-time this week.
It's never too late to chase the great American dream of rock 'n' roll, after all.
Red Collar releases Pilgrim Saturday, March 14, with a show at Triangle Brewing Company. The Dry Heathens and The Bones Royal open at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10, which includes a copy of Pilgrim.