They may be local heros, but ‘Constellations’ misses Joe

Perhaps someone should find Joe. Maybe he could help the band with their songwriting.

“Breaking Down the Constellations” is the first full-length record for the alternative rock quartet Missing Joe. The album, released on the band’s own record label Bird Grooming Records, is a collection of the band’s strongest and best-received songs since the group formed in 1996. But despite several pleasing efforts by the band, the album overall will likely not break any new ground in today’s contemporary music scene.

Still, it is important to recognize Missing Joe as local heroes who have managed to make a name for themselves in the New England and New York area. Consisting of vocalist/bassist Matt Rafal, guitarist Dave Dombrowski, drummer Brian Coes and newly added keyboardist Dan Holden, each member of the group grew up in various areas along the Connecticut shoreline. After spending time on the Connecticut club circuit, the band traveled north to the more vibrant music scene of Boston. Since then, the band has recorded an EP, “Never Been to California” (1997) and has been the opening act for distinguished groups such as Third Eye Blind, Sister Hazel, 311 and Live.

Despite the group’s accomplishments, “Breaking Down the Constellations” runs into two major problems. The first is that the group tries to sound too much like the groups for which they have opened. Throughout the record, the group strives for the semi-acoustic folk sensibilities of Sister Hazel, the hook-heavy pop appeal of Third Eye Blind and the lyrical depth of Live. As Missing Joe seeks to incorporate the elements of these radio-friendly artists, they end up with only small pieces of each and no coherent whole. As a result, the band lacks the distinctive qualities that these more accomplished bands have mastered.

This problem is recognizable in the presentation of the album. Despite clear, professional sound quality and better than average production, very few songs have any musical characteristics that are particularly memorable. The band rarely incorporates more than mildly distorted electric guitar, bass and drums. Without a creative, eclectic spark, the album gives the listener a batch of songs that are often pleasant but equally monotonous.

The other difficulty the band runs into involves the singing and lyrics of the album. The songs on “Constellations” generally lack catchy choruses or other distinctive vocal trademarks. Rafal’s voice, a cross between Third Eye Blind’s Stephan Jenkins and Scott Stapp of Creed, is competent but not captivating, and his lyrics are sometimes incomprehensible.

The lyrics of the album in general, while striving for the intellectual, often come across as trite cliches. In “Old Saybrook,” an acoustic tribute to the small Connecticut town, Rafal sings the all too predictable “Old Saybrook’s calling me/but I’m never going back.” The band also fails at a rare attempt at creativity in “Edison”: “Mr. Thomas Edison/flick a switch and start us up again/it’s all your fault, all your fault.” While the subject matter of today’s alternative music is not often of much importance to the listener, Missing Joe fails to hide this seldom recognized weakness, spoiling otherwise coherent compositions with poor lyrical quality.

That’s not to say that the band doesn’t have its strong suits. The musicianship, while not particularly inspiring, is certainly proficient, and seems particularly suited for the live concert scene. Dombrowski lets loose on a fine classic rock-styled solo on “Across the Ocean,” and the song “Constellations” offers atmospheric keyboards and sound effects that give credit to the song’s title.

Not completely bereft of laudable songs, the album’s opening track “Everywhere I Go” is as close as the band will sound to Third Eye Blind, thanks to Rafal’s catchy and energetic vocals and Dombrowski’s crisp guitar arpeggios. “Fallen Sky,” the disc’s true standout track, is something that Lenny Kravitz would be proud of (and probably would have made a hit), both funky and aggressive. And though the band doesn’t achieve anything original on the acoustic finale of “All the Stars,” the upbeat folk song is the first real divergence from the wash of distortion and comes as a breath of fresh air.

The band also incorporates a little humor into their disc by parodying the Dave Matthews Band’s “Under the Table and Dreaming,” which, like “Constellations,” has 34 tracks, 22 of which contain no music but serve to separate tracks 11 and 34. Those looking for a bonus track on “Constellations” will be disappointed though, as the 23 tracks following the 11th and final song on the record simply run without another sound.

While “Breaking Down the Constellations” is not a bad album and Missing Joe is not a bad band, they still have a long way to go before they consistently provide material worthy of the radio airwaves. Like so many other nameless bands, Missing Joe copies the formula of what has worked for their contemporaries instead of striving for a creative identity, and the result is generic alternative rock. What is actually missing is an innovative flair. All that’s left is a bunch of average Joes.

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