The first Sorta song I heard was "85 Feet," off of Strange and Sad but True. What a doozy that one is. It's a hell of a song, a melancholy chronicle of a horrifying event, the true story of a man who threw his girlfriend off the High Five overpass, then jumped behind her. What makes it such an effective song is its combination of extraordinarily catchy melody and extraordinarily detailed lyrics. The latter relay the story with such pinpoint imagery that it turns a relatively straightforward tale—albeit a horrible one—into such a personal story that it becomes excruciatingly real. "Fifty miles away amid the roaring rush hour traffic/Her body came to rest on Janet Durham's Crown Victoria." Such details are rough enough to endure, but it's the back story of the doomed couple—right down to the picture of their "Knox-Henderson apartment"—that puts everything in such a creepy context. Meantime, plucky piano notes make their way through a simple but infectious tune, anchored by brushing drums and moody pedal steel guitar. Upon hearing the song, you find yourself humming along, the awful images brought about by the lyrics sneak by your consciousness, subdued by the song's melodic momentum. The effect is chilling and brilliantly rendered.
It's surprising, then, that some, uh, sort of Sorta backlash seems to be occurring. I arrived in Dallas with Sorta on the brain, only to find ambivalence toward the band growing. As one person said to me, "Who wants to go see a bunch of middle-aged guys play?" Ouch.
But when I finally made it around to catching them this past week at their show at the Granada, some of the backlash made sense. What was initially striking: Filling the stage with the entire six-man group, backed by the Granada's dramatic lighting and rocking out in a sort of mellow way, Sorta had a whole...Eagles vibe going.
Is that a bad thing? Well, as far as aesthetic and stage presence go, it's not something that's going to appeal to snooty hipsters, which isn't necessarily bad (but it could explain part of the backlash), but it does open up a discussion of how perhaps this whole co-opting of decades business might have reached the end of the road, at least as far as Sorta is concerned.
What's disappointing about this band is that the songwriting is so good, the core of the music so solid, they merely obfuscate it with a layered instrumentation that echoes the arena rock of the Carter years. Whereas the beauty of "85 Feet" lies in its simplicity, songs such as "Lazy Bones," also off Strange, meander off into the '70s wilderness with thick, orchestral drums, unnecessarily affected vocals and tepid, almost jam-band guitar licks. Even the slight bombast of the lyrics—"Ashes to ashes/Dust to dust/I am alone/And in my own home"—veer to the polar opposite of the finely wrought words of "85 Feet." Sadly, Sorta's live show, at least as experienced at the Granada, follows the tone of "Lazy Bones" more than it does "85 Feet." Its arena rock appeal was undeniable, but it had an aura of resignation: We've mined the '70s for all the good stuff, and now we're stuck with picking through the leftovers, the grand statements and guitar solos, in an attempt to flesh out what doesn't need to be fleshed out at all.
Toward the end of the show, as the band finished up with a final song during which the they played—for dramatic effect, I believe—behind a lowered screen, ramming through a show-ending jam-out, I found myself fantasizing about hanging out in some cold, dark living room somewhere. Just me and the guys from Sorta, with acoustic guitars and maybe a little trap kit. Just me and them, and they play "85 Feet" with such rawness that no one can speak for a few moments afterward. Because, really, I think that's what the backlash is about: We want every other Sorta song to be as good as that one. And it's not that the other songs are so bad, they're just buried under their own weight, while "85 Feet" soars on its own.