Wednesday, April 2, 2014

album review: 'forcefield' by tokyo police club

It's been a while since I talked about Canadian music - so let's change that, shall we?

Specifically, we're going to be talking about the Canadian rock scene, indie or otherwise. The fun fact is that when you move away from the post-grunge scene towards more of the pop/indie rock vibe, there are some really high quality bands. For one, I'm a big fan of Marianas Trench and their intricate pop opera brand of songwriting, to say nothing of great hooks, solid melodies, and at least two incredibly solid albums. On the other hand you have an act like Metric who I also really like - oddly, for a lot of the same reasons: great hooks, solid melody lines, and reasonably good songwriting.

And I think at the intersection of these two, I would place Tokyo Police Club, a band that might call themselves indie rock, but does share a lot of traits with pop rock acts. While they might have a bit of a rougher sound, their lyrics are decidedly lodged in the overly verbose, almost naive landscape of emo pop rock that got popular in the mid-2000s. And while I wouldn't say they're as strong songwriters or musicians as either Metric or Marianas Trench, Tokyo Police Club for me are the definition of a good rock band: good hooks, decent vocals, occasionally interesting lyrics, and a strong pop sensibility both in theme and in execution. And it's really that pop sensibility that's defined the band for me, as there has been a progression towards an indie pop level of polish and lightweight energy that has given them more staying power than anyone would have expected from their early years.

And thus, I was interested enough in their newest album Forcefield, which early buzz was suggesting was even more geared towards a mainstream pop audience, especially with the chart success of certain indie rock acts these days. What did I find?

Well, I'll say this: Tokyo Police Club's Forcefield is an album that only gets more frustrating the more you think about it. On the surface, this record is very much in the vein of Tokyo Police Club - upbeat, guitar-driven pop rock with a hint of an indie edge and lyrics that straddle the line between naive earnestness and reality. But the second you take a step deeper, a real gulf opens between the themes this album is approaching and their execution, and while I don't think it cripples the album, it does make Forcefield a fair bit more compelling than I was expecting, making it a flawed, yet still very enjoyable record.

So how does this happen? Well, a comment was made by the band saying that they wanted to avoid some of the more recent trends in indie pop rock and stick with the riff-based approach they know - and honestly, that won points for me right out of the gate, because you're not going to find a stronger detractor of the reverb-swollen ponderous glut of indie pop rock than me. And while there are a few moments where the reverb is a little thicker than I'd prefer, Tokyo Police Club deliver on that promise - seemingly by going into a time capsule, because their sound hasn't really evolved much since their last major record four years ago, other than another shift towards general pop radio-friendliness. But then again, that's not exactly their fault - just because mainstream radio jumped on board with indie rock doesn't mean Tokyo Police Club should have changed to avoid it.

The one change I will note, outside of some loose island-inspired rhythms that are a bit hit-and-miss, is that someone finally introduced the band to minor chords and they take advantage of it on some darker songs, and as much as the occasionally cutesy and naive nature of Tokyo Police Club can get a little tiresome, songs like 'Gonna Be Ready' and 'Tunnel Vision' are a bit jarring, but not exactly in a bad way. Part of this is lead vocalist David Monks - he's a good singer and his delivery tends to fit well with the more upbeat and surface-level happy songs, but the darker tracks are a bit of an awkward fit as I'm not sure Monks is the most convincing stage presence in these songs.

Granted, if you look past the surface level on the lyrics, you end up unearthing some surprising darkness on this album, which is where we need to talk about lyrics and themes. The album's title Forcefield isn't lying, as this record is exploring the invisible barriers we erect between ourselves and others - and honestly, I liked a lot of what Tokyo Police Club did with the concept. The opening eight-minute epic 'Argentina', for instance, explores how a guy tries and fails to hit on the girl in question - and then he realizes that she was never going to stick around and was deflecting his advances not because she didn't like his company, but because she didn't want to hurt his feelings, so he apologizes for being an asshole. That's a pretty satisfying emotional arc and while Tokyo Police Club does get cute with the Evita references in the lyrics, it kind of works. Then there's 'Toy Guns' that completely embraces the band's naivete - which is its own sort of forcefield - and ignores potential danger to just be happy and spread it to others, tearing down other people's barriers. It's cheesy, to be sure, but I thought it worked. And I really liked 'Through The Wire', a song about holding onto love despite distance, even though that song does have a distressing similarity to HAIM's fantastic song about wire last year. The album closer 'I Feel The Effect' tries for something similar between exes, but it muddies the water with stories of friends who are oblivious to the messages they need to hear, which could have held over an entire song on its own.

But it's where the songs get a little darker and more complex that things get interesting. 'Miserable', for instance, is a bizarrely upbeat song about how everything is going right for our narrator and he's so blissfully oblivious that he only peripherally picks up that his friend might be in pain - and yet even he's not truly happy and is just putting up a facade. 'Tunnel Vision' and 'Gonna Be Ready' are more straightforward as they both seem defiantly determined to party or be the alpha dog regardless, which the instrumentation matches, but both songs feel myopic either through alcohol, societal expectations, or sheer dogged determination to ignore reality. But it is these songs that really raise the question of this album: how self-aware is this band regarding these barriers they're building? On the one hand, the more blissfully naive material tends to resonate a little stronger thanks to Monks' delivery and the upbeat tone - but on the other hand, the most oblivious track is 'Hot Tonight', which approaches obnoxious self-absorption and with its really basic composition is easily the worst track on the album. But if there is greater self-awareness about said barriers that are being erected or torn down, Monks' earnest delivery isn't a great fit for it and the album never really reaches a coherent thesis about said 'forcefields', other than self-justification, and that feels hollow to me. Furthermore, that level of self-awareness does undercut some of the more sincere material and I'm not sure Tokyo Police Club has a strong enough handle on the tone or are good enough technical songwriters to play it both ways.

The funny thing is that despite my issues here, I did like this album a fair bit. Tokyo Police Club at this point remind me a fair bit of post-Green Album Weezer for better or for worse, a comparison a lot of critics have made and not without good reason. And as with River Cuomo, it's hard to tell how much of it is a self-aware mask. So as much as I liked this album - and I did, let me stress this - I'm very much aware that between concept and execution, it's a bit of a mess. But it's a mess that's compelling, well-performed, and really quite enjoyable, so I'm giving this album a 7/10 and a recommendation. Sure, at this point Tokyo Police Club are making pop rock with only the faintest of an indie touch - but it has bigger ambitions and are definitely worth a few listens.

No comments:

Post a Comment