Hot Water Music was duality turned to unity. It was two voices that mingled and intertwined as much vocally as in their fretwork, joined together by the strongest rhythm section in punk rock. No member of Hot Water Music was replaceable. Chris Wollard is a piece of that perfect puzzle, and to his merit or detriment, he may never be able to shake off the success and admiration of his past group. His new band is Ship Thieves, which used to be Chris Wollard and the Ship Thieves, the very same that released the excellent Canyons. Ship Thieves is a solo project being rebranded as a real band, and on No Anchor it signals a departure from their decidedly less punk former output. No Anchor is a punk record. It’s filled with chugging guitars and winding leads and singalong choruses– it’s basically the Chris Wollard we all loved from Hot Water Music making new punk rock with different people.
But, unfortunately, and this is all conjecture, I wonder if Chris Wollard’s name preceding itself was a detriment to the creative process on this album. Hot Water Music was great because it was four greats playing together, equally talented and, I assume, invested in the final product. I don’t doubt that to some degree all the members of Ship Thieves are into the music they make and contribute accordingly. But, if you were in a band with Chris Wollard, would you fight that hard to nix the idea of a Hot Water Music alum? Especially, if just a year ago, it was his solo project?
Herein lies the problem with No Anchor: the inconsistency of its quality. “Middle Man” opens the album with a great chorus and timely subject matter about economic inequality. It’s given a layer of literary esteem by including a Vonnegut reference, that also gives the chorus a darker take away than at first glance. This is a great song. It’s tightly structured punk rock that doesn’t waste a second of its runtime. But, No Anchor can’t maintain this level of songwriting through its duration. After a while, most of the songs blur into a hookless block of time that doesn’t take the time to differentiate song from song. The title track is strong, “Born Into This” is as good as “Middle Man,” and “Ruts” is actually a cool, pretty tense number with lots of rock n’ roll guitar. But what about the other six tracks?
The playing is fantastic of course, and its nice to hear Wollard’s unique fretwork again. He’s a textural, harmonic player, so much so that his playing is almost consciously muted melodically, as if he would rather his single note leads become the backbone of a song rather than the highlight. It’s not a bad thing, it’s actually pretty interesting to hear this approach across No Anchor, but it does serve to make the whole record sound relatively samey.
No Anchor is excellent at its heights. With a more sure cutting hand, it could’ve been a fantastic EP. With bolder arrangements and songwriting, it could’ve been a classic record. As it is right now, it’s okay, but unfortunately deserving of the title Hot Water Music-lite.