neon fictionLately, it almost seems like a trend for members of punk bands to start acoustic side-projects during lulls of touring and writing with their original bands.  You might blame it on “the increasingly grim state of the music industry,” and you might be right too, but that’s not to say that every Tom, Dick, and Harry can push out a well written acoustic album in their droll downtime from making crowds of fans all sweaty and light-headed at stanky punk shows.  Fortunately, Sundowner’s main man (and The Lawrence Arm’s guitarist/vocalist) Chris McCaughan seemed to have taken his good ol’ time to write Neon Fiction in between Lawrence Arms albumsprobably even to many impatient fans’ lamentbut let’s be honest, it was well worth the wait.

Neon Fiction is a bit of a step in a new direction from previous Sundowner records, most noticeably from an instrumental perspective.  To call this album an “acoustic album” might be a bit of a stretch.  Plenty of tracks feature fellow Larry Arms bandmate Neil Hennessy on drums and bass guitar, and many of the tracks even utilize the pretty standard punk trio instrumental structure which would be considered anything but acoustic: electric lead guitar over a rhythm guitar, rolling electric bass, and driving punk rhythms on drum set.  Really, just about the only ingredient Neon Fiction‘s nostalgic opener “Cemetery West” (along with a few other similarly structured tracks like “Concrete Shoes” and “Paper Rose City”) is missing to be considered a full-fledged, less intense, Lawrence Arms song is the third and final delightfully crusty Larry Arm, Brendan Kelly.

What're you doing Chris?  No shoes on the bed!

“Chis! No shoes on the bed.” No Mom, it’s punk.

Setting the lyrical tone for the rest of Neon Fiction, “Beautiful Ruins” speaks of the brisk and bustling city of Chicago like she’s a beautifully tragic lady who McCaughan leftwhich isn’t that surprising considering McCaughan had recently left his hometown of Chicago for his girlfriend’s homeland of Portland, Oregon (which I’m sure Fred and Carrie would agree is quite a different place).  Further on in the track list, “We Drift Eternal” can get quite heavy sonically, and, at times, the song even reminds me of another Larry Arms side-project known as Brendan Kelly and the Wandering Birds, especially during the palm-muted verses.  One of the few acoustic songs on Neon Fiction, “Grey on Grey”, is a growing depiction of simple love, and one of my favorites from the album.  Towards the end of the track, drums start to crash and McCaughan settles into the outro pleading “hope you’ll love me the same way, when the colors are grey on grey.”  “Life in the Embers” is sure to make you bob your head and set your life straight while “Origins” (Neon Fiction‘s last truly acoustic track) consists of a pretty non-traditional song structure, especially for how traditionally Sundowner the lyrics are; honest, introspective depictions of hometown living.  “Paper Rose City” is yet another great example of how Sundowner has mastered the blending of acoustic and electric instrumentation to make for bright, full, and light songs.  Another particular favorite of mine from this album, “Poet of Trash” is a devilishly booming son of heart-felt self-deprecation with a tinge of hope.  “Wildfires” is a bouncy uplifting track which, rather than sung next to an uncontrollable “wildfire”, is probably best played next to some comfy, recognizable campfire which burns not in some wild forest, but behind the flannel covered chests of the campers (sorry for the cheese overload all over your eyes, but I couldn’t help my sorry self)a perfect closer for such an eclectic and minimalistic approach to a full-band version of Sundowner.

~ D.B.

jew-damageLet’s be honest with ourselves here—there will never be another Clarity or Bleed American, simply because those records are modern classics, and Jimmy Eat World got older, and so did we. These days, I’m not expecting JEW to put out the next Clarity, because it’s not 1999 anymore, it’s 2013.

That being said, I don’t want them to abandon what made them excellent in the first place. I don’t think they ever completely did, but some of their previous records flirted with it, becoming poppier and more produced than I would have liked.

Damage is the closest Jimmy Eat World has come to returning to their classic emo/alternative rock roots in many years, and it is excellent indeed. The record seems to mix the older stripped-down emo sounds with the Futures-and-onward full-bodied aesthetic. In short, it’s a good mix of the old and new Jimmy Eat World.

Right off the bat, “Appreciation” hits the listener with an organic guitar-based approach that typifies most of Damage. It’s probably thanks to the bare-bones recording-to-tape approach used by producer Alain Johannes, a regular Queens of the Stone Age collaborator. The title track, “Lean,” and “Book of Love” are upbeat, jaunty pop-rock songs. Lead single “I Will Steal You Back” boasts one of the stronger choruses on the album.

“Please Say No” might be the “Hear You Me” of Damage; a gradually-building slow-tempo ballad with deeply personal and specific lyrics. The next two tracks step up the energy—the exceptional “How’d You Have Me” is full of driving guitar and catchy hooks, and “No, Never” is the closest thing to Bleed American/Futures-era Jimmy Eat World I’ve heard the band produce since those records were released.

JEW has always thrived in the open spaces—expansive, mid-tempo rock songs with emotive lyrics from frontman Jim Adkins. The superb “Byebyelove” is a great example: another standout for sure, and one of my favorites. Album closer “You Were Good” is a simple acoustic song that almost sounds like it could have been found on one of JEW’s lesser-known EPs like Firestarter, the self-titled EP, or Stay On My Side Tonight.

Along with guitarist Tom Linton, bassist Rick Burch, and drummer Zach Lind, Adkins has crafted another masterwork here with Jimmy Eat World’s seventh studio full-length. Although the record is rather short—ten tracks, clocking in at just over a half-hour—the band consistently pulls off what they do best: sweet and simple emo-rock songs that stick with you. 2013’s Damage is unexpectedly excellent.

~ J.M.

Before I start this review I want to bring something to your attention dear OBR readers: if Strange Vacation sounds like a few other bands to you, don’t be so quick to turn down the volume.  The fact is that Strange Vacation is absolutely influenced by certain bands (i.e. The Dangerous Summer, The Graduate, Angels & Airwaves) and it just so happens to be pretty blatantly obvious, but that doesn’t make them any less enjoyable or interesting to listen to on a budding summer’s morning.  In fact, I find myself listening to Strange Vacation because of their unique take on this kind of unspoken sub-community in pop-punk where Tom DeLonge is their god, delayed guitars and spacey synths is their language, and the typical “pop-punk breakdown” is fortunately nowhere to be found.

ThunderstormsYou see, Strange Vacation made quite the splash amongst these excited fans with their debut album Chasm.  Since then they’ve played only one public show as Strange Vacation (as far as anyone knows), successfully crowd-funded a vinyl pressing of the debut record, and had been secretly working on a follow-up album to Chasm almost immediately after it was released.  Now, it’s here – Thunderstorms.  If that wasn’t enough hype for you, check your pulse because you’re probably dead.

A sophomore release is a difficult one for any band who gained any kind of success from their first album.  No matter what, listeners will want every record after their first colossal debut to be even more exceptional.  Thunderstorms certainly rolled in with a fan-pleasing boom, but I have to say; I have a few things to gripe about.

Strange Vacation is now solely comprised of Mark Warren (bass, keys) and John-Paul Bakaric (vocals, guitar) with the occasional vocal accompaniment from Jem McTaggart.  Since Chasm, Strange Vacation’s line-up dropped two players with the leaving of Josh Waldorf on guitar and vocals and Kyle Mueller on drums.  Much to my surprise, Bakaric (vocal/guitarist) filled in on drums for all of the tracks on Thunderstorms.  I can’t say that Bakaric’s drum tracks are as difficult and technical as Mueller’s contributions on Chasm, but it’s clear that Bakaric has an ear (and apparently the ability) for placing fitting and well-rounded drumming behind his own songs.

Strange Vacation was able to pull off another record showcasing their unique adaptation of The Dangerous Summer-esque bands, but it seems like an overall less-mature version of their first beloved release.  Some of my favorite tracks such as “Come Watch The Sunset” showcase a slew of harmonies and vocals from Bakaric and female-accompanist Jem McTaggart, but I can’t help but think that the track begs for a change of pace with vocals from their previous-member Waldorf.  Without the mind-blowing chops from past-drummer Kyle Mueller and refreshing vocals from past-member Waldorf, I find myself noticing what I don’t like about these tracks, for example, like how the vocals now sound forced at times (much like many other places on the album).  The same stressed yell worked well at the end of Chasm’s “Round and Round”, but the same can’t be said for their excessive and even somewhat ridiculous use on Thunderstorms.

The real gems on Thunderstorms are towards the end of the album.  Songs like the mid-tempo builder “Oasis” and the relatively inquisitive “Purpose” are examples of Strange Vacation’s ability to make meaningful and instrumentally fitting songs.  The album’s title-track is an accurate representation of the better elements of Thunderstorms, and rightfully so, with its huge chorus and conservatively used minor chords

My biggest complaint with Strange Vacation’s otherwise solid album is the lyrics, and the best example of this let-down is the song “On and On”.  The catchy track is possibly one of their best instrumentally and, without a doubt, has the most potential (with it having the heaviest guitars and whatnot), but along come Bakaric’s seemingly phony lyrics in the verse, “A little late night drunk sex, before I know it we’re in a fight, by the morning all that’s left is a regret.”  Compared to the thoughtful, contemplative lyrics from their last album, “Recreate your stability, new inventions to cope, and create the sounds you love, with sharp clarity in your dreams,” there’s simply no comparison – it’s unfortunate, but one has to assume that Strange Vacation have lyrically taken a giant leap in the wrong direction.  There’s even a couple songs on Thunderstorms which remind me of cheesy pick up lines like in “Heaven Must Be A Mess Without You” when Bakaric and McTaggart harmonize to say, “My angel, Heaven must be a mess without you.”

“Road Trip” is a more mature take on youth and quite possibly my favorite song on the album, especially compared to “On and On.”  It even features an Angels & Airwaves type of delayed guitar riff which just so happens to sound pretty similar to AVA’s “Do It For Me Now,” but the riff isn’t similar enough where it ruins the song by any means.

Don’t get me wrong, a few tracks on Thunderstorms are some of my favorites from their catalog yet.  Songs like “Sick Cycle” featuring none other than The Dangerous Summer’s very own AJ Perdomo during the bridge and outro serve as a reminder to anyone doubting the record (myself included).

So I guess my real grievance with Thunderstorms is that it showcases the skilled and listenable best of Strange Vacation, but doesn’t leave out the disappointing worst of Strange Vacation, which leads me to conclude that the record, much like this review, might be one big contradiction.  With that being said, though, don’t let this discourage you from giving Thunderstorms a chance.  Strange Vacation have still done it again and made for an interesting and unique twist on this growing sub-genre in pop-punk, but maybe just start listening to Thunderstorms somewhere in the middle of the album instead of from the beginning like some lunatic OBR writer does from now on.

~D.B.

CityColourAlbumIt’s certainly been interesting watching Dallas Green’s progression since his early days as part of post-hardcore outfit Alexisonfire. After disbanding AoF to focus exclusively on his solo career under his pseudonym City and Colour, Green seems to have garnered a larger and more respecting fan base than he ever did in the post-hardcore world. In my mind, City and Colour has allowed Green to convert the American Eagle-types who are drawn to the pop sensibilities, while, thanks to his background, retaining the respect of hardcore fans who loved Alexisonfire’s scream-sing pummeling.

His latest album, 2013’s The Hurry and the Harm, shows Green incorporating even more of the full-band sound that he flirted with in previous albums. It’s a far cry from his first record as City and Colour, 2005’s Sometimes, which was much more early-Dashboard Confessional-oriented with just an acoustic guitar and Green’s pretty voice. Personally, I prefer that era a little bit more than the backing band aesthetic Green uses now, but that doesn’t mean The Hurry and the Harm is a bad record.

The title track leads off the disc in a slow-rolling manner, complete with Southern organ swells and swinging drums. This is the type of sound that makes a large portion of the disc: very open, expansive tunes, all with Green’s smooth vocals driving it along. Next is “Harder Than Stone,” which features one of the strongest and catchiest choruses on the album. A cool acoustic version of the song is included on the deluxe version of the album.omg-i-3-dallas-green-wait-whos-on-fire

“Thirst” and “The Lonely Life” are jauntier high-energy pop songs. “Of Space and Time,” “Commentators,” “Two Coins,” and “Ladies and Gentlemen” make up the bulk of the rest of the disc, and are decent enough, albeit a bit formulaic, tunes.

“Paradise” and “Take Care” harken back a bit to the Sometimes era, which I appreciate—somber acoustic lines blend in behind Green’s subdued contemplations in a similar way to the City and Colour of 2005. The Hurry and the Harm ends on a high note: the excellent “The Golden State” and solid “Death’s Song” are a good way to round out the disc before the bonus acoustic tracks come in.

Modern City and Colour is more spaced-out, more rollicking and rolling, more full-band and folk-pop oriented. If you enjoy that, you’ll like The Hurry and the Harm. Even fans of the older singer/songwriter/acoustic City and Colour can find something to like about this disc—there’s a little something for any fan of Dallas Green.

~ J.M.

tumblr_mn4v1iFEE71qm9pv9o1_500One has to wonder what guitarist Tomo Miličević was really doing half the time while 30 Seconds to Mars recorded their latest album, Love Lust Faith + Dreams, because there’s really not a whole lot of guitar to speak of. It’s been replaced by synths, orchestral swells, and electronic percussion sounds (which begs the question of what drummer Shannon Leto was doing half the time, too). I guess they were busy fiddling with keyboards and drum machines, because I’m afraid 30STM’s latest album sees the band give way to the over-processed modern dance-pop sound instead of the straight-ahead alternative rock from their early days, or even the U2-inspired arena-rock from their last disc, 2009’s This Is War.

Jared Leto and company try so hard to be astronomically grandiose, to be the biggest band on the planet, to be some kind of rock messiahs, that it just ends up coming across as empty, contrived, and more than a little cheesy. This trend reared its head occasionally on This Is War, but I did like that album because I felt the grandiose ambitions didn’t completely overwhelm the quality of music. On Love Lust Faith + Dreams, the ambition has eclipsed everything else.

Little things irritate me about this record. It’s divided into four categories, based on the four names in the title of the disc. Okay, good enough. So then why is “End of All Days,” whose chorus finds Jared repeating “All we need is faith” over and over in his best Rhianna impression, found in the “Lust” section? Further down, we come across “Bright Lights,” which in its defense is probably one of the more solid songs, if we were forced to pick. Three tracks later a song comes along called “Northern Lights.” Bright lights, Northern lights… too many lights. It bugs me when track names are so similar, especially found so close together and not intended to complement one another.

Lead single “Up In The Air” sounds like a dancey Maroon 5 song… not that I have anything against Maroon 5, since they never claimed to be anything other than what they were. The aforementioned “End of All Days” sounds like a Rhianna piano ballad with Leto’s voice instead of Rhianna. The interlude-esque “Pires of Varanasi” brings in some world music touches along with orchestra dirges ripped straight from The Dark Knight Rises soundtrack… it might be cool if it wasn’t so cheesy. “Do or Die” is an okay song, probably one of the better ones, although the main riff sounds very similar to “Night of the Hunter” from This Is War.

Almost every song utilizes a four-on-the-floor quarter-note bass drum pulse, giving almost every track a dancey club feel, considering the bass drum is heavily processed every time. It’s as if 30STM pulled the classic “sell out” maneuver, changing their sound to suit the mainstream radio crowd, but the band members remain completely oblivious and think their music is the greatest gift to mankind that they could have possibly rendered. Okay, so Jared Leto’s voice is very impressive, as always, but his lyrics are so unimaginative, so pompously grandiose, that he comes across as a self-important rock star with a god complex.

If 30 Seconds to Mars had turned down the cheese factor, upped the humble factor, and focused more on inventive and exciting songwriting, Love Lust Faith + Dreams might have impressed me more as the follow-up to This Is War. Years ago, I read an article in which a bandleader complained that Jared Leto was just acting out the part of a rock star frontman. I didn’t agree at the time, thinking that those other bandleaders wouldn’t say that if Jared Leto wasn’t in fact a successful actor. Now, though, I’m starting to agree with that sentiment. It seems like 30STM is more focused on acting out the image and grandiose messages they wish to send, rather than the actual quality of music they’re putting out. Even if that’s totally not what they think, Love Lust Faith + Dreams certainly makes it come across that way.

~ J.M.

The-National-Trouble-Will-Find-Me-608x608With each full-length from Brooklyn’s The National, the band has progressed and grown in sound and scope. They continue the trend with their sixth LP, Trouble Will Find Me. While—for me personally at least—the novelty of The National’s sound may have worn off a bit considering I listened to Alligator, Boxer, and High Violet about a trillion times each, their new material is certainly as solid as anything they’ve released, and will be unanimously praised by fans of their prior work.

Trouble sees vocalist Matt Berninger stretching his limits like never before. On opener “I Should Live In Salt,” he sings in a higher register than normal, almost sounding like a normal indie band vocalist instead of the baritone bass crooner we know him as.  His whimsical ruminations rise to the forefront on songs like “Heavenfaced” and “Fireproof” in a way they usually don’t—most of the time, Berninger’s lyrics lurk behind the groove, rather than standing out front. Personal stories, regrets, worries, tales of love and loss—Berninger doesn’t break too much new ground here lyrically, but as per usual submits his lines expertly and humorously.

I’m also intrigued by the odd time signatures that occasionally crop up within Trouble Will Find Me. It’s most notable in lead single “Demons,” where an otherwise-standard National song is made unique thanks to a 7/8 groove, lead by drummer Bryan Devendorf. Devendorf’s parts seem a little less frenetic and busy than usual, opting instead to support the tunes tastefully rather than stealing the spotlight.

Some of the songs on Trouble are classic National (“Graceless,” “Don’t Swallow The Cap,” “Humiliation”) while some are more whimsy and fleeting than usual (“Heavenfaced,” “I Need My Girl”). “Pink Rabbits” utilizes a nice slow swing/shuffle type of groove that suits the band well, especially Berninger’s somber illustrations of his experiences. Closer “Hard to Find” ends the album with a subdued piano ballad, only introducing a light percussion part in the final minute—a cerebral closing to an album that sees the band covering some new ground.

I can’t say Trouble Will Find Me is blowing me away like 2007’s Boxer or even the band’s earlier records did, but as I said, it might just be that the charm wore off a little. That’s not The National’s fault, it’s mine. In addition, most National albums take a few weeks to really settle in and grow on the listener, so I’ll probably be more stoked on Trouble by the summer.

It may seem obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: those who already enjoy The National will like this record, and the band’s detractors, who might foolishly label this music “boring,” probably won’t find a whole lot to gravitate toward this time around. Even so, Trouble Will Find Me continues this band’s incredible growth and expansion, and is a solid addition to their existing powerhouse of a catalog.

~ J.M.