With my hometown San Francisco Giants in the World Series, it’s only fitting that I begin this entry with a baseball-related lead…
There are times where artists give you big curveballs, the 12-to-6 breaking types to be exact (Sue me, I’m a Barry Zito fan). Here are a few records I didn’t expect to stick with me in the ways they have. Whether it’s a sonic twist, an interesting musical wrinkle, or a question of quality, these are some interesting listens that kept this reviewer on his toes.
Bad Books- Bad Books (****)
It’s hard to say what people were expecting when Andy Hull and Kevin Devine revealed they were working on music together. Both men take vastly different approaches to their song craft: Hull gravitates towards a more binge and purge style of emoting, while Devine constructs delicate cathedrals of metaphors from his words. The big question was would they attempt to collaborate, or would it feel like two E.P.s smashed together? In a lot of ways, maybe it was fair to expect songs that sounded like another Manchester Orchestra album, one that merely featured Devine as Hull’s main stay band provided added instrumentation. However, Bad Books’ self-titled record is a fuzzy, folky, and intimate set of songs that feels like its own beast completely. Less the sum of its parts and more the work of a full band, Bad Books breathes with a tender life of its own. Both Hull and Devine create revealing portraits with their words, whether it deals with the life’s bad luck gamblers (“The Easy Mark & The Old Maid”) or the completely clueless (“You Wouldn’t Have To Ask”). Aside from its melodic immediacy, what keeps Bad Books consistent is Hull and Devine’s ability to make listeners empathize with these flawed characters; they feel real, or are at least comparable to people we all know. Sonically, the group wears their love of 90s style rock proudly. The thumping swirl of “Baby Shoes” recalls the quirky jangle of Pavement, while some of the album’s more angular cuts mine Pinkerton era Weezer without feeling derivative. Subtle piano flourishes and full keyboard textures round these songs out nicely, and Bad Books succeeds in creating something no one would have ever expected from Hull or Devine: This year’s sleeper hit.
Key Cuts: The Easy Mark & The Old Maid, Baby Shoes, You Wouldn’t Have To Ask
Hellogoodbye- Would It Kill You? (***)
With their new album, Would It Kill You?, Hellogoodbye pose a big question to listeners. The real issue, however, is should they care? At this point, fans will be happy just getting a new album from the Huntington Beach pop outfit. It’s been 4 years since Hellogoodbye dropped their saccharin milkshake of electronic laced power-pop, Zombies! Aliens! Vampires! Robots!, and yet somehow it feels longer. That wait certainly creates lofty expectations for Would It Kill You?; if the band took this long to record an album of pop songs, it really has to be a homerun. And while the album begins with the jumpy rattle and energetic strum of “Finding Something To Do,” Would It Kill You? fails to match up to its predecessor both in songwriting and production. Make no mistake, lead songwriter Forrest Kline can write a chorus as syrupy as Vermont’s finest (“And this thought/Made it clearer/I ought to/Be near her…” he sings on “When We First Met”), but the coy images he conjures somehow lack the charm of the group’s debut. There was a sincerity to his lyrics on Zombies! Aliens! Vampires! Robots!, one that’s lost in Kline’s obsession with Magical Mystery Tour era Beatles song craft. That’s the other really tough sell on Would It Kill You?: The group’s decision to scale back the spazzy keyboards and auto-tune theatrics. Cropping up only in small bursts (The presence of laser beam synthesizers on the horn heavy “Betrayed By Bones” being one of them), Hellogoodbye consciously dial back the slickness in favor of more organic arrangements. There are cleaner guitars (“Something You Misplaced”), more sugary background vocals (“I Never Can Relax”) and a general lack of chaos, which kind of made the group appealing to begin with. It’s an album that’s seeped in sleepy strings, shambling melodies, and delicate percussion. While it sounds nice, it also sounds innocuous. Kline was so focused on making a pristine sounding record that he forgot to really push his arrangements, and that’s big the difference. The old Hellogoodbye would never ask if something would kill you, they’d kill you with kindness.
Key Cuts: Finding Something To Do, Betrayed By Bones, Something You Misplaced
After their meandering, overproduced third album, Senses Fail had something to prove. Lead singer Buddy Nielsen drove his drinking and his daddy issues into the ground, and the group lost a skilled axe man in Heath Sarceano. Yet, the biggest problem with Life Is Not A Waiting Room was that it stretched their sound to its extremes. The heavier numbers attempted to bludgeon listeners, while the ballads leaned towards melodramatic. This, in turn, made the songwriting feel rigid and stale. The Fire, however, attempts to leave that behind, bringing in truckloads of energy to a band that desperately needed a spark. The album’s title track starts things off with ominous gang vocals, thick muscular breakdowns, and Nielsen’s much improved vocal delivery. While far from an album of hardcore anthems, Senses Fail continue to keep the energy up through The Fire’s 11 blistering tracks, even on the ballads. Both the sharp stomp of “Saint Anthony” and the spidery melodies of “Safe House” remind fans just how addictive the group can be, while the soaring “Landslide” displays the group’s much more vulnerable side. Still, the album’s real strength is its urgency, evident from the furious coarseness of “Coward” or the relentless, crashing riffs on “Lifeboats.” While Brian McTernan provides Senses Fail with his familiar mechanical production tweaks, the songs just come across as more consistent than their last album, even if The Fire’s highs aren’t as memorable. Yet, the album’s brightest spot is its willingness to go out on a limb, to be exposed without relying on clichés. The group seemed a bit lost on Life Is Not A Waiting Room, and while they retreat to some familiar territory here, they should have no problem stepping forward with confidence on their next release.
Key Cuts: Safe House, Coward, Lifeboats
Weezer- Death To False Metal (***)
A strange sense of transparency has permeated throughout all things Weezer in the post-Weezer (The Red Album) era. Fans used to wait 6 years between Weezer albums, under the mindset that Rivers Cuomo was tinkering away like a mad scientist in the studio. While Cuomo has been lauded as having a Fort Knox size collection of demos for potential Weezer songs, Death To False Metal represents a mere ten-track tip of that iceberg. Unfortunately, it’s not a lost album of power-pop gold, and Weezer shows fans that even if you hated Make Believe, they are great editors. The songs that populate Death To False Metal are primarily sketches, and it’s easy to see why Weezer left them off their proper studio albums. The goofy Top Gun style synthesizers of “Auto-Pilot” and the jangly strum of “I’m A Robot,” find the group having fun in the studio, but not really holding anyone’s attention. Still, there are some interesting ideas hidden within Weezer’s familiar chunky fuzz, if not fully formed songs. “Everyone” rumbles with sharp metallic riffing, and “Losing My Mind” expertly displays twinkling melodies against soothing strings. The real highlight, however, is the album closing cover of “Un-Break My Heart,” displaying some desperate sentimentality with mammoth sized bravado. In all, Death To False Metal feels like an inconsistent patchwork quilt of experiments, but grants Weezer’s old and new material some interesting context.
Key Cuts: Losing My Mind, Everyone, Un-Break My Heart (Toni Braxton Cover)