Friday, February 28, 2014

album review: 'helios' by the fray

Let me take you back a few years.

See, back in the mid-2000s the Billboard Hot 100 charts were in a very weird place. Southern crunk was deteriorating rapidly, indie rock briefly exploded before fizzling out, pop punk and the newest incarnation of emo were tearing up the charts, and pop music was in a weird place, either coasting off of slinky R&B in the vein of Justin Timberlake or with crossovers from other genres, like Gwen Stefani building her short-lived solo career away from No Doubt or Nelly Furtado selling out to work with Timbaland and actually making better music for the trouble. 

And it was in this period that a series of bands discovered they could churn out hits making soft, introspective middle-brow material with just a hint of a rock edge, and in 2006 we got a deluge of bands some enterprising critics deemed 'Dawson's Creek rock'. You know the genre, songs that are just perfectly inoffensive enough to be played over long meditative montages where James Van Der Beek wistfully stares off into the distance and cries about something. And in 2006, we got the motherload, with Daniel Powder's 'Bad Day' topping the Billboard Hot 100 list of that year, with a whole slew of acts like Five For Fighting, James Blunt, Coldplay, Snow Patrol, and others surging up the charts. Hell, even Nickelback tried to go in this genre before reverting to their typical brand of meat-headed mediocrity. And to be fair, as much as I like to make fun of this genre (mostly because it's so damn easy), there was quality here, and while Snow Patrol was always the best of the genre (you know it's true), I do wish the boom had lasted a little longer and given adult alternative acts at least a little more staying power before the genre practically evaporated with the club boom with only a few exceptions.

And among the list of bands to explode in that year was The Fray, a band I only find remarkable because of how incredibly accessible they were. Not enough of a brawny edge to fall into post-grunge, yet not soft enough to be dismissed as easy listening schlock, The Fray had a smash hit with their debut album How To Save A Life - despite the fact it wasn't that good and hasn't really aged well. Critics have never been kind to The Fray, and there's a very good reason for that: when you try so damn hard to please a wide audience, you end up losing some unique identity yourself. And while I tended to like their more melodic focus more than most critics, I've never been fond of Isaac Slade's vocals, I've found the guitars lacking in texture, and the lyrics have always teetered on the line between overly earnest and kind of endearing and borderline parody.

In any case, The Fray hit a stumbling block with their second self-titled album, mostly because it was playing in the same wheelhouse with somehow worse lyrics. And after recording a cover of Kanye West's 'Heartless' that completely missed the point, I assumed their careers were over. But it turns out in 2012 they put out a third album Scars & Stones, and while The Fray were touting their ability to stick together, I was seriously wondering if they had forgotten their strengths. At this point, the lyrics were borderline token, Slade's falsetto was painfully weak, and the good melodies had been subsumed under flat guitar lines that were trying to sound big but had none of the personality. At this point, I assumed anybody who was still listening to The Fray had picked up Fallen Empires by Snow Patrol (a much better album) and had put The Fray out of their minds forever.

Well, it turns out The Fray have a new album with a new single that sounded nothing like The Fray I knew, so out of sheer curiosity I picked up Helios. Was it the shift in direction The Fray needed to stay relevant?

Well, you can't say they don't try their damnedest to make it work - and honestly, I don't want to thrash this album. Believe it or not, I don't like handing out reviews that are negative, especially when it's evident how hard the act is trying - but I'm also a critic who has to say that Helios by The Fray isn't a good album. It's by no means the worst thing I've heard this year, but it's a profoundly confused, hyper-earnest yet poorly articulated work that eventually devolves into a gigantic mess. What's even more frustrating is I get the feeling that the band doesn't really understand their biggest strengths, which leads to several misfires on this album that at least had the potential to work.

So let's start with the instrumentation and production, and I'll give The Fray this, they've always had a knack for crafting a pretty catchy hook, if not a good melody. This comes from being a band mostly driven by piano - and whenever the band moves away from that, they tend to run into problems. Their best experiment in this category was the lead single 'Love Don't Die', which sounds like a Black Keys song minus the texture or killer melody, but their stab at disco in 'Give It Away' and their mid-period Killers riff in 'Shadow And A Dancer' feel token at best (and 'Give It Away' seems to actively miss the point of good disco with a leaden bass line that makes the entire song feel top-heavy). The problem comes in that the melodies are often so basic and rudimentary that they lose presence and start feeling interchangeable, and the lack of distinctive texture really doesn't help matters. 

Now considering how hard the production is trying to crank everything to eleven for a borderline stadium-rock vibe, you can tell The Fray are trying to go broad for big emotions - it's really the best fit for their deadly serious earnestness that comes out in every song. I mean when gospel choirs and backing choruses come out in multiple songs and your drum production is this prominent and clean, you're making your intentions pretty clear. And like with their last album, you can tell that more than a few glances were taken at acts like U2 and Coldplay. But the problem with that is those bands knew that four bars of hook weren't enough to sustain a grand epic song, which leaves much of The Fray's new music feeling oddly weightless.

Part of the problem is Isaac Slade. Look, I'm not a fan of his vocals - they're nasal, his falsetto is unimpressive, and his howling rasp doesn't exactly have a lot of emotional range. But it was on Helios where I realized the problem, because Slade does have some emotional range and even charisma - but he's a terrible fit for the sort of music The Fray makes. Compare him to Chris Martin or Gary Lightbody or Dan Reynolds from Imagine Dragons or even Bono, guys who can sell that sincerity and make it carry deeper weight and meaning. The tone of Slade's voice is really better suited for a more sour, bitter, darker emotional spectrum, maybe in a post-grunge vibe. But whenever he's singing this uplifting material, he comes across as a little too humourless and harsh and I don't get sucked into the emotion of the song.

And the songwriting really doesn't help matters here. And as much as I really don't like doing this, I'm going to join the critics and say The Fray have never been good songwriters. They're a shockingly blunt band, and the exaggerated nature of their songs doesn't lend itself to nuance. Take 'Love Don't Die', a song about reaffirming commitment that rapidly moves into ludicrous hyperbole. Maybe it's just me, but I feel the same way about this song that I do about Christina Perri's 'A Thousand Years' - when you start throwing around the word 'thousand' to describe how long your love will last, you're either in a parody or a Twilight movie! Then you have 'Our Last Days' or 'Wherever This Goes', songs that trying to read from the Springsteen playbook but have nowhere near the texture or flavour or even coherency to back up their claims to 'Born To Run'. And that's not counting the places where the songwriting gets downright terrible or just plain weird. Take 'Break Your Plans', a song sung to an ex that begins with the lyric 'I wish I had cheated / at least that's a reason' and then spends the entire chorus trying to tell her to 'break her plans for me tonight'. Uh, if you place you cheating on the table as a legitimate reason why the relationship could have ended and yet you want her to change her plans for you, I have nothing positive to say about that brand of selfishness. Or take 'Closer To Me', a song where Isaac Slade goes into detail about all of the criminal elements about his personality and then asks the girl, 'won't you come a bit closer to me?' Uh, why, and no? What's even worse is that The Fray are trying to make it come across as romantic in the 'bad boy' mold and the earnestness of the presentation makes it completely unconvincing. 

Look, I'm not saying this album is all that bad - there are a few songs I even kind of liked. 'Hold My Hand', a song about dealing with upcoming death, and 'Hurricane', your standard wild-girl song, those aren't bad. But the rest of this album is either forgettable or just not worth your time. If Helios reflects anything about The Fray, it shows that they have no idea where they want to take this band and have instead chosen to hop on trends and bandwagons in the hopes their singles might gain some traction - in other words, given the more sterile-than-ever production and focus on hooks over good songwriting or melody, selling out. In the end, as a former apologist for The Fray, I'm giving this record a 5/10 and only a recommendation if you find the songwriting or instrumentation emotionally compelling in some broad way. Otherwise, do what everyone did and put The Fray out of your mind.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, you said everything that was in my head while I was listening to this album, and didn't wanted to say it aloud. And I love (at least, used to) The Fray.

    Helios by The Fray review