Thursday, July 25, 2013

album review: 'the brilliancy ep' by the brilliancy

It really gets on my nerves that so many critics dismiss pop music.

Oh, certainly not as often as they used to, but more often than not, music critics tend to look down on pop and country and other genres that cater to mainstream radio with a certain condescension that drives me off the wall. Not only is ignorant of history (you all remember that The Beatles and Michael Jackson started out as pop acts, right) and denigrates the genre, it also places their genres of choice (often indie acts) on a higher pedestal. And the more I think about it, the more I become increasingly convinced that said pedestal isn't always earned - sure, there are plenty of independent acts that are pushing boundaries and are making interesting artistic statements, but just because they might adopt a less commercially successful aesthetic doesn't give them a complete pass if their lyrics or instrumentation aren't compelling. 

And when we circle back to the topic of good pop music, the conversation gets even trickier. What most people don't tend realize is that good pop music of any kind still requires a fair amount of talent to write and produce, and the formula to getting it right is constantly changing. In that element, I'd argue indie rock has it easier - without having to worry about mainstream airplay, they have the freedom to push boundaries and write songs about any topic under the sun, whereas pop music doesn't quite have that flexibility.

So what makes good pop music? Well, like all art, there's no defined formula, but I think I've managed to nail it down to three central concepts: solid instrumentation/production (complete with a hook), good lyrics/vocal-personality, and sincerity. Most pop songs can get mainstream airplay with two, maybe one-and-a-half out of three, but the best, most memorable pop songs get them all, and I can't stress enough how important these elements are (particularly sincerity). Getting simply one out of five might get you a passable song, but nothing more than that.

For example, let's talk about 'Call Me Maybe' by Carly Rae Jepsen, a song I don't particularly like that ruled the airwaves last year (you might have heard of it). In my books, I think the weakness in this song is the bland instrumentation (those aren't real strings, you're not fooling anyone) and the crappy lyrics, but Carly Rae Jepsen manages to salvage things with some personality and complete sincerity in her delivery. Compare this to Taylor Swift's '22', a song with a decent hook, but terrible lyrics and a complete lack of any sincere feeling, so the song just doesn't work for me. It's why songs like 'I Want It That Way' by the Backstreet Boys is such a great pop song (perfect across the board) and a song like Selena Gomez's 'Come And Get It' is such a dud (I'd give it half a point at best). And when you go back through pop music, it's extremely hard to find songs that would fit all of those criteria. Hell, even going into the independent scene I'd find a hard time locating songs that nail all three of these categories (depending on framing, independent music can occasionally get away with a lack of sincerity or a hook).

So with all of that in mind, let's talk about the self-titled EP from pop rock act The Brilliancy, and why it's probably going to make it on my list as one of the best albums of the year.

Youtube review after the jump

Yeah, I'm dead serious about this. For the five or six of you who have read my blog since last year, you might remember I talked about The Brilliancy when they released their two song demo disk at the concert I attended. And from the very beginning, I was struck by how this band was consistently nailing all the little elements so many pop rock bands get wrong. So when they released their EP (with the previous two songs from their demo disk included, plus four new ones), I was definitely curious to see how good the band would sound on record. I already knew they put on a great show live, so I had high expectations going in that this EP would sound pretty damn solid.

And for once, I wasn't disappointed. I wasn't kidding about The Brilliancy EP likely landing on my list of the best albums of the year, because as a pop rock act in 2013, you're not going to find something much better. Everything that I liked about the band live and on their previous cut has been refined here, and they even took steps to tackling a few of the problems I mentioned in the previous review (probably the first time that has EVER happened). And while I said that The Brilliancy sounded a lot like mid-to-late period Jimmy Eat World in my previous review, I can now say having actually listened to the new album from Jimmy Eat World, The Brilliancy are easily head-and-shoulders above them.

Let's start with instrumentation and production, the former in which The Brilliancy have always stood out. Unlike most pop rock acts, they're not afraid of guitar or drum solos, and they're talented enough to let such solos stand for themselves on record. And while the production has rounded off some of the rougher edges you hear live, the positioning of Brendan Friel's strumming in the mix to support Austin Leadley's vocals rather than overpowering them is exactly what The Brilliancy consistently gets right and Jimmy Eat World consistently gets wrong. In fact, no member is overtly overshadowed (in most pop rock bands, the lead vocalist overshadows everyone), which leads to a surprisingly egalitarian mix, where Friel's crisp guitar work is balanced by Rob Raco's superb drumming and Brad Merryfield's solid work on bass. If I were to nitpick, I do think the band could afford to let a few more of those harsh edges through (with the growth of indie rock on mainstream radio and the rise of 90s/70s nostalgia, distorted guitar is back in), and I do wish the vocal harmonies were slightly higher in the mix, but overall, I can't complain.

So let's move onto lead singer Austin Leadley's vocals, and I have to repeat what I've already said: I like his delivery. His emotions feel genuine and heartfelt and sincere in a way that's been severely lacking on modern radio, and yet his vocals still have enough polish and good technique to be commendable. It's definitely a solid fit for the EP's upbeat and sunny tone without becoming nasally obnoxious or crass, which can become a major problem with some pop rock acts. That being said, I am curious to see what will happen if the band chooses to write songs that are darker or less optimistic, because while Leadley's smooth tenor does fit the tone here, I'd like to see how he's handle more emotionally complex material.

And with that, let's talk about lyrics and content, the one area that in the past, I've thought The Brilliancy needed to improve. Don't get me wrong, it's never been bad or offensive or even boring, but many of their songs had fit into convenient pop music archetypes and really didn't rise far above it, at least in terms of lyrical content, with the most egregious example being 'Don't Give Up', which was a basic self-esteem anthem in every sense of the word. Once again, it wasn't bad, but it didn't quite stand out in the same way.

So I was more than pleasantly surprised to not only find that 'Don't Give Up' wasn't included on the EP, but had been replaced by 'Hold On', a song that fits the self-esteem anthem but injects it with a bit more complexity. Instead of coddling of the song's target audience, it's more of a 'tough love' song, telling them that they're going to go through hell, but they're going to make it through anyway. It's amazing how such a little change in presentation makes a song so much better, and I really dug the approach (plus Brendan Friel's guitar solo here is awesome). 

And the song that follows it, 'Not Over You Just Yet', is probably the most lyrically complex song that The Brilliancy have put on record yet. Initially I was skeptical of how much I would like this song, as it falls into the 'not over you' song template that can get wearisome quickly, but there are two factors that make it significantly better. First is the choice to cast the song's protagonist as the reason why things went wrong - but unlike Cher Lloyd's execrable 'Want U Back', it's smart enough to frame said protagonist as admitting it's his fault the relationship ended and feeling genuinely regretful (Leadley sells the hell out of this, so kudos to him). Secondly, and more importantly, it makes the risky choice to show him not winning his girl back. It casts the relationship as over, with no going back, and that adds real emotional punch to the song. It's almost country music in its portrayal of sadness, and I applaud The Brilliancy in taking the risk to write that sort of thing.

And yet, the rest of the EP is balanced out by the energetic and expansive pop rock that they do so well. I spoke highly of 'Stay' and 'Can't Take It Away' as my favourite songs of their live set, and thus I couldn't help but smile when they were the opening tracks of the EP. Those, along with 'Not Over You Just Yet' are definitely my favourites, although I could talk all day about how every element of this EP works as incredibly solid pop rock. And what's all the more exciting is that with the inclusion of 'Not Over You Just Yet' and 'Hold On', I see promising signs that the songwriting is there for some truly compelling and very listenable tracks, and I genuinely want more.

So to summarize, I highly recommend The Brilliancy EP. It's solid, it's fun, it's incredibly energetic, and there's a standard of quality and polish that speaks volumes of their talent. And while I have a few small nitpicks, the majority of this EP just leaves me wanting more. And like with other incredibly talented acts, I want these guys to blow up like nobody's business. 

For those of you who follow my stuff, you know I don't say this about many acts. Trust me, they're definitely the real deal, folks. Check them out.

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