Graded on a Curve:
The Handcuffs,
Burn the Rails

With drummer Brad Elvis and vocalist-rhythm guitarist Chloe F. Orwell as co-leaders, Chicago’s The Handcuffs dish an auditorium-ready sound that draws upon glam rock with a proto-punk tinge, no-nonsense bluesy hard rock, and even a few fleeting snatches of art rock. The lineup is filled out by bassist Emily Togni, lead guitarist Jeff Kmieciak, and keyboardist Alison Hinderliter, with the band’s new album Burn the Rails a vibrant pounder that thrives on solid songwriting, and on two tracks, the guest synth and piano of Mott the Hoople’s Morgan Fisher. It’s out on CD and digital June 3 through Pravda Records, with vinyl to come later in the year.

The scoop is that Brad Elvis (given surname Steakley) and Chloe F. Orwell originally intended The Handcuffs to be a studio project; prior to initiating this endeavor, the pair were in the late ’90s-early ’00s indie outfit Big Hello. Burn the Rails is their fourth full-length, and it appears their vinyl debut; also, it’s their first for the long-serving Chicago-based Pravda label.

Along the way, the itch to play live has needed scratching, which isn’t a surprise given the vividness and heft of The Handcuffs’ sound. Burn the Rails is an unreservedly hi-fi undertaking, with the largeness of its rock gesturing delivered without a trace of irony (notably, Elvis has been the drummer in The Romantics for over a decade), and refreshingly so, as a unifying factor in the band’s approach is a sense of smarts that puts the kibosh on any retrograde tendencies.

Smart but not intellectual, as the title “Big Fat Mouth Shut” helps to situate. After the short instrumental intro “Grapefruit,” Burn the Rails opens proper with “Love Me While You Can,” teasing a strummer but then quickly kicking into overdrive, the guitar burn nicely counterbalanced with piano as Orwell’s sings with a swagger that’s descended from the moves that Bowie swiped from Lou.

That attitude intensifies in “She Ain’t No Fluffer,” a track that injects Fisher’s synth and some sweeping-stabbing bowed-string action into a decidedly hard rocking scenario (it’s borderline boogie-rock in the instrumental break). Altogether, the song’s roar is quite contemporary and downright surprising structurally.

The piano in “Big Fat Mouth Shut” strengthens the ties to glam pomp as the toughness of the rhythm guitar and Jeff Kmieciak’s searing leads will satisfy the rockers, plus the horns bring a hint of early Roxy that’s more deeply articulated in the following track, “Let’s Name Our Children.” But it’s pretty far from any kind of routine Roxy imitation as “The Ballad of Fritz and Zoom” shifts gears into a ’90s Alt-rock framework.

Fisher’s piano in “I’m Happy Just to Dream With You” is a bit like Odessey and Oracle-era Zombies gone full-blown neo-music hall amid ripples of tart T. Rex-ian zest. Weirdly, the organ in “Pretty Pretty” briefly brought Argent to mind, though the song ultimately throbs forth like a byproduct of ’80s Los Angeles (but hey, maybe it’s just the lyrical mention of Hollywood & Vine).

The strum at the start of “Come on Hey Hey” is mildly reminiscent of mid-period Led Zeppelin, though like much of Burn the Rails, the song ends up travelling a path that’s not so easily taggable. Both it and  “Dancing With the Dandies” benefit from Orwell’s saxophone playing, which stands apart from how the horn is typically heard in a rock setting.

From there, “I Cry For You” finds Orwell surfing atop a bedrock of chunky riff throb with more stinging leads, while “The End of the Party” is not quite that, serving as the set’s penultimate track, honing a blend of post-Beatles backward masking, sophisto-glam key-tinkling, more hammered riffs, and bottom-end thickness.

“Tobogganing” is Burn the Rail’s proper goodbye, a near instrumental loaded with raw guitar and bursts of stomp. If the record’s more contempo moments can flirt with standard R&R theatricality, The Handcuffs’ tightrope walk of sheer chutzpah avoids the off-putting, as the 13 selections cohere into an enjoyably unpredictable LP.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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