Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Bad Books

Bad Books
New Release: II
Release Date: October 9
Record Label: Triple Crown Records
Sounds Like: Telekinesis (NMT), They Might Be Giants (NMT), Fountains of Wayne (NMT)
Location: Atlanta, Ga. / Brooklyn, N.Y.

After last week's smorgasbord of reviews, let's settle it down a bit with a look at a simple, indie-rock record: the sophomore effort of the Atlanta, Ga. / Brooklyn, N.Y. collaborative sextet Bad Books, appropriately titled II and out October 9 on Triple Crown Records.

The band is a project including the majority of members of Manchester Orchestra along with indie-folk solo artist Kevin Devine. Devine shares lead vocals and songwriting credits in the group with Manchester Orchestra frontman Andy Hull. The partnership is more evolved than simply adding Devine's talents to the Manchester Orchestra sound, resulting in an approach that mirrors many of the successful songwriting duos in rock history, from Simon & Garfunkel to They Might Be Giants' John Flansbaugh and John Linnell and Fountains of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood.

Things start off slowly, with the murky and moody "The After Party," which itself is a nod to Devine's solo song of the same name. Lead guitarist Robert McDowell goes lighten the vibe with some lofty figures during the verses and wailing through the number's crunching chorus. In contrast, the following "No Reward" features the clever lyrics and hooky songwriting that's in the heart of the Fountains of Wayne sound, with a sliver of hard rock edge from McDowell, bassist Jonathan Corley and drummer Ben Homola than that band might include.

Leadoff single "Forest Whitaker" builds on that clever and hooky frame while adding a more narrative lyrical structure. Lines like, "I started a fight with the neighbor next door and his pesky wife..." could have just as easily emerged from the Collingwood/Schlesinger playbook. Here, you'll find some whimsical 80s-sounding synth, a whistled refrain and punchy percussive rhythm, although I would have preferred a more enthusiastic chorus than the one supplied here given the humorous promise of the verses.

There's barely a second of transition time before "It Never Stops" abruptly changes gears, more deliberate and introspective then the preceding numbers. Listeners who previously enjoyed the tres-indie Telekinesis will find a suitable compliment with this track, as lines like, "I bet the future on an ice cream cone," bear strong similarities to the smart pop rock delivered by Michael Benjamin Lerner.

Andy Hull's "Pyotr" is just a little sleepy, with bluesy, low-register guitar and minimalist vocals from Devine, but decent background harmonies to add splashes of color. The restrained mood continues on "Friendly Advice," with a looping rhythm in the mold of the Smashing Pumpkins' "1979." It doesn't really add intensity or nuance as it goes along, and I get the feeling the track could have been much more than it is.

Conversely, the Devine-led "No Sides" returns to the uptempo and lighthearted hooky vibe of the record's first few numbers. It's among the most accessible and enjoyable offerings on the 11-track effort. And again changing directions is the rusty, alt-county infused "Petit Mort," which isn't far off the mark of the sound Band of Horses coalesced so successful on Mirage Rock, reviewed here last week (NMT). The dual-frontman blend of Devine and Hull is at its best here, offering more character and texture than the blandness of "Pyotr" and "Friendly Advice."

The closing trio of "42,""Lost Creek" and "Ambivalent Peaks" tacks back to the calm and somber, with the former pretty much a Hull acoustic track with gentle piano flourishes and uncredited female background vocals. Meanwhile, "Lost Creek" benefits from trace amounts of The Band's backwoods narrative and rootsy blend, but can't overcome its stodgy nature. The latter is gentle and serene, but is just Devine's answer to Hull's "42," although I intrinsically like Devine's voice better.

Come for: "Forest Whittaker"
Stay for: "No Sides"
You'll be surprised by: "Petit Mort"
Solid efforts: "The After Party;" "No Rewards;" "It Never Stops"
Meh: "Pyotr;" "Friendly Advice;" "Lost Creek"
Skip to next track: "42;" "Ambivalent Peaks"

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