Thursday, March 6, 2014

album review: 'oh, what a life' by american authors

Well, we knew this was going to happen eventually. We knew that someday, some major label executive was going to notice the smash chart success of The Lumineers and The Neighbourhood and Bastille and think, "Oh god, indie rock has actually scored a foothold on the charts, how the hell are we going to capitalize on this without signing an act that's actually challenging or hard to market?"

Well, the funny thing is that there really are a lot of bands in this vein, just indie-sounding enough to avoid the pop brush but not so indie that Pitchfork gives a damn about them. Acts that you might know and like for 'that one song' but would be hard-pressed to call yourself a hardcore fan. In other words, we're looking at a silent majority act, or, to be a little more snide, the indie rock that gets popular thanks to commercial jingles or showing up on sitcoms. And while you have acts like Bloc Party, Vampire Weekend, and Deafheaven who have shaken the silent majority label by actually being critical smash hits, most critics don't tend to care much about bands in this vein.

Enter American Authors, formerly called The Blue Pages when they were still trying to build buzz on Bandcamp. After two independently-released EPs, they landed a major label contract with Mercury in early 2013 and have since then seen their songs feature in mainstream ads around the world. And like with Alex Clare's 'Too Close' from 2012, this has led their big hit single 'Best Day Of My Life' to gain some major traction on mainstream radio. My initial judgement of them based on that single were as a cross between The Lumineers and Imagine Dragons (in other words, the marketer's wet dream), but I've been surprised by bands in this vein before and I didn't want to brand them as derivative without giving them a fair chance, so I gave their debut album a few spins. How did it turn out?

Well, this might surprise you, but I enjoyed this album a lot more than even I was expecting - mostly because the band that 'Best Day Of My Life' is selling is not quite the band that American Authors is, in term of instrumental style, lyrics, and especially tone. This isn't a band looking to have the ponderous epic power of Imagine Dragons - no, American Authors owes more to the power pop styling of Fountains of Wayne, Jimmy Eat World, or maybe even the Neon Trees, all wrapped in a distinctly modern folk-inspired indie rock package. It's a weird mix, but once you can get into the head space of this act, American Authors is a fair bit better than you might think - not to the point where I think their debut is an essential release, but definitely worth your time.

So how the hell did they make this work? Well, first was a sane grasp of scope, because the majority of the songs on this album are rooted in simple pop cliches about love, having a good time, and relationship drama, and it's all with the weight you'd expect from a high school sitcom. It's a decidedly old-fashioned approach that many times approaches corniness, but American Authors understands this and they go for broke with earnest abandon anyway. And plus, that sincerity is a natural intersection point in the world of power pop and folk music, and the sunny, upbeat tone the band takes is a great fit. There's a lot of plucky banjo, handclap melodies, and rich backing vocals, and when you interject it with some sharp-edged guitar and a quicker pace, it's a surprisingly good fit. The closest they reach to a perfect fusion of the genres is in 'Home', reaching into a trashy blend of pub crawl singalong and power pop smash that needs to be the next single ASAP. And in the better songs on this record, like 'Luck', 'Trouble', 'Love', and 'Heart Of Stone', they work their best to hammer this balance as hard as they can.

It's just a damn shame nobody in the production studio quite figured out how to make this work consistently. The biggest issue crops up with Zac Barnett's vocals - he's a singer with a ton of youthful charisma, but someone put him behind a rougher microphone and piled on the vocal effects to give more 'indie' appeal and it muffles some of that earnest energy. What's worse is that when the backing vocals are cleaner than your lead singer, it messes up the sonic balance of the track. On top of that, I can't help but feel some tracks are overproduced and contain too many extraneous elements. The falsetto on 'Believer', the synth elements on 'Hit It'... actually the synth elements anywhere on this album could have been excised and it would have sounded better. Finally, like all modern indie rock albums gunning for the mainstream, the balance between the guitars and percussion is completely skewed in favour of the drums, and there are few moments where the guitars are actually allowed to explode with some real crunch and energy. Which really is a shame, because American Authors have a pretty decent grasp of melodies and I'd like to have seen that rewarded.

But putting aside the mix-ups in the studio, what holds American Authors back from being truly great? Well, I'd argue it comes through in the lyrics - simply put, while they are pretty good technical songwriters with a great grasp of lyrical flow, the content could do to have a bit more flavour and texture. We're not looking at Semisonic or Fountains of Wayne-era songwriting that has the great, enduring detail, and that does hurt American Authors somewhat. That's not saying they don't have songs that go in different directions - 'Trouble' plays with the fun juxtaposition of dating a wild girl in both ups and downs, and the hapless narrator trying and mostly failing to rein her in, and 'Ghost' talks about dealing with the past before moving on with your life - but there aren't many lyrical details that would make the songs really pop for me. 

In the end, the marketing behind American Authors is really selling this band short, because behind the songs looking to imitate Imagine Dragons' success is an act with a fun fusion of power pop and folk rock that really works better than it should. Whether or not you like this particular band will honestly depend on how much tolerance you have for simpler, upbeat power pop material that's a little too sincere for its own good, because this record is not looking to blow your mind. But it's a promising start with real flavour and provided they can get the production issues figured out and a little more lyrical ambition, we could have a pretty excellent band here. As it is, Oh, What A Life by American Authors gets a 7/10 and a recommendation from me. Check these guys out, you might just surprise yourself.

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