The Strange Boys take a big step out of the garage murk of their early days with Live Music, yet somehow end up sounding even more like a part of Austin, Texas than ever. The band recruited fellow Austinite Jim Eno to produce the album’s first half and ventured to Costa Mesa, California to work with Mike McHugh on the second half; though Live Music's actual sound is free of the grit that marked albums like Be Brave, it rambles like a bar crawl, and Ryan Sambol's voice is as smoked as Austin barbecue. As on Be Brave, Sambol and company spend most of the album chugging along at an amiable strut, particularly on “Me and You,” “My Life Beats Me,” and “Doueh.” The pianos that popped up from time to time on that album return here, adding to the honky tonk feel of “You Take Everything for Granite When You’re Stone” and the excellent “Saddest,” which interrupts its wry shuffle with a synth interlude reaffirming that the Strange Boys are still keeping it weird. However, the band also uses its newfound polish to try different sounds on for size: the closing instrumental “Opus,” a surf-blues exercise in tension and release, boasts some great guitar tones, and “You and Me,” a strangely timeless-sounding ballad, has a subtle drama that recalls Eno’s main project, Spoon. Still, the Strange Boys’ greatest strength is making the rootsy sounds they love seem fresh and unfettered. They’re steeped in tradition, not hidebound to it, at times evoking the Band, the Stones, and the Faces as well as contemporaries like Childballads and Cold War Kids, but always sounding like themselves. Their harmonica wails like a blues harp on the soulful “Walking Two by Two,” then harks back to the British Invasion on “Punk’s Pajamas.” Sambol is evolving into a fine lyricist, equal parts poet and philosopher, as well as an expressive singer. He murmurs lines like “You can’t choose who you love and you can’t choose when you die” on “Over the River and Through the Woulds” as though he’s singing them more to himself than an audience; “Mama Shelter”’s “There just had to come a time/When you would decide/To take leave/To keep alive/What you’d started long before/We ever said hi” sums up so much about the end of relationships. While Live Music sometimes feels a little too rambling for its own good, the growth the band shows is even more impressive because it seems so effortless. Besides, if they got too cleaned up and focused, they’d be the Respectable Boys instead of the Strange ones.
AllMusic Review by Heather Phares