Sunday, June 29, 2014

album review: '5 seconds of summer' by 5 seconds of summer

Okay, let's try this again.

So a few months back, in an attempt to fill some time between reviews, I covered the debut EP of 5 Seconds of Summer, She Looks So Perfect. To be kind, I was ambivalent on the EP at best, a small slice of mostly forgettable pop rock that suffered from poor production balance and questionable songwriting, not to mention a pale shadow of better pop rock acts that came before. That review received something of a mixed reaction from folks, as many were quick to make a lot of excuses for the band that didn't really fly. Yes, they started on YouTube and they're teenagers and they wrote all their own songs and they wrote so many more good ones that didn't make the EP, so I should just give them a pass, right?

Well, no, I'm not doing that - half because it denigrates YouTube talents and teenagers who write their own music who do show incredible talent, and half because those excuses have nothing to do with the content of the music and everything to do with the artist. You can make all sorts of excuses for the artist in question but it's not going to make the music better. And yeah, it's silly pop rock and I probably went further in-depth into the songwriting than even the band did, but I repeat, there are plenty of pop rock bands who do this sort of thing better. I think to some degree the fandom for this band comes from the marketing machine you see every time a pop rock band in this vein gets popular, and maybe it's just with the benefit of history or some deeper knowledge of how these bands chart, but there's a formula here, shaped by the producers if not by the band itself. And with that in mind, I've seen the formula done better.

That said, I did recognize that it was a four song EP, and bands seldom get the chance to show all their facets on such a small sampler, so I resolved to pick up their self-titled debut album and give them another chance - what did I find?

Well, honestly it's a fair bit better. I won't say that the self-titled album from 5 Seconds of Summer is stellar or essential, but it's actually pretty decent and it shows a pop rock band that does have a certain appeal - and also that I'm completely outside of that demographic at this point. And since I can recognize quality even outside of my own personal tastes, I can say that 5 Seconds of Summer put together a pretty solid debut for their target audience - and when I say target audience, I'm talking about preteens, and not much older.

Okay, let me explain, and the best place to start would be the instrumentation. 5 Seconds of Summer have gone on record saying that their primary influences are acts like Boys Like Girls and Blink 182, and it's on this record where I really saw the most - sunny, upbeat power chords with guitar tones that tended to split the balance between having some edge and being smooth enough for teen pop radio. What kind of exasperates me is that if you listen closely near the back of the mix, you can actually hear some pretty solid guitar chops, and the solos aren't bad - either way, they show some instrumental competency that would be nice to see in the forefront but you won't see because of their genre. And the drumming is a huge standout for me - consistently energetic, occasionally textured and interesting, it lends a fair bit of flavour to the band you wouldn't expect. That said, whenever synthesizer tones crept in, I wasn't really a fan - the tones either came across as too slick for the guitar tones or a little oily, which didn't fit well. Granted, that's also a production issue, which hasn't really improved much since the EP, thanks to the unsteady balance between pop slickness and a band that clearly wants to rock a little harder - and honestly, they have hits and misses on both sides - I dug the heaver tones of 'Don't Stop' and the quick riffs of 'Heartbreak Girl', but the folk-inspired 'Everything I Didn't Say', the tight groove balanced against the strings on 'Beside You', the bouncy piano of 'Long Way Home', the overheated silliness of 'English Love Affair', and the more acoustic tones of 'Amnesia' worked pretty well too.

This takes to our singers - and here's where the biggest hidden asset of 5 Seconds of Summer became apparent: sincerity and teenage naivete. Even though the vocal production still is spotty - occasionally too much reverb and distortion, which clashes with the cleaner delivery - these guys believe what they're selling and while it doesn't always make them immediately likable, it does make them understandable, especially in the vein of gawky teenagers. It's here where the Boys Like Girls and Blink 182 influences are most apparent, because both of those acts were defined by sincerity and decidedly teenage stakes to their material. And while there are points where they play up their gawky awkwardness a little more than they should - we'll get to that - for the most part that youth actually makes the record more tolerable. They aren't old enough to know better and be cynical, and the relationships fall into similar black-and-white boundaries, which changes their stakes and actually makes them a fair bit more tolerable. And that's one of the reasons why I can't stand 'She Looks So Perfect' - it's a song with decidedly mature subject matter being done entirely sincerely by four guys for which this seems entirely out of their league.

But in songs like 'Don't Stop' or 'End Up Here', it completely works, mostly because they play themselves more as underdogs and seem completely bewildered why the girls in question are into them, but they're going along for the ride anyhow. This takes us to the songwriting, where arguably the biggest improvements have arisen. Yes, there are still songs like 'Good Girls' and '18' that feel a little clumsy, but for the most part the poetry has gotten better and the subject matter has improved as well. The heartbreak songs 'Everything I Didn't Say' and 'Amnesia' are well-framed and sincere, the former even going so far to acknowledge his own mistakes contributing to the break-up, and 'Beside You' is one of the better cracks at a life on the road than One Direction's poorly written 'Story Of My Life'. And I'll admit, 'Englilsh Love Affair' was a surprisingly enjoyable song for me, as it plays out like exactly the sort of overwrought hookup story that toes the line between fact and fiction that could go either way but nobody believes. That said, my favourite song was 'Long Way Home', as it very nearly transported me back to my teenage years and the nervous moments where I was trying to elongate my travel time in order to spend more time with the girl in question. That's what the best teen pop can do - capture those moments in microcosm, no matter how small they might be.

That said, there are a few songs that did get on my nerves a fair bit. The least offensive was '18', mostly because it was playing the Bowling For Soup, 'Girl All The Bad Guys Want' vein and was really too dorky to be taken seriously. But then there was 'Good Girls', which featured the oh-so-charming line 'good girls are bad girls who never get caught' - which was all sorts of questionable and probably didn't belong as the cornerstone of your chorus. And finally, there was 'Heartbreak Girl'... and let me start by saying that I get this song, about the girl who continuously goes back to crummy relationships and then whines to their friend about it who secretly loves them. But it's also a song that features lyrics like 'being stuck in the friend zone' and throughout the entire song I'm saying, 'You know, if you told her how you felt and were honest and weren't presumptuous that you'd be so much better than the asshole boyfriend or that you're clearly the one perfect for her, this wouldn't be so much pointless melodrama'. And the frustrating part of the song is the framing: if there was the slightest bit of self-awareness showing that he could be with this girl if he spoke up or she had interest in him beyond just being friends but he never made the move, it could have worked really well... but it never goes for that and the song just comes across as a little unpleasant.

So yeah, for the most part, I mostly liked the decent self-titled debut album from 5 Seconds Of Summer. I'm not going to say it's required listening, and I will acknowledge that it's not for me demographically, and that it still requires a decent bit of work to really rise to the level of great pop rock acts like The Brilliancy or Marianas Trench, but it was a modest improvement and I'll give credit where credit is due. For me, it's a strong 6/10, but it's definitely recommended to any girl between the ages of, say, 9 and 19. What I'm happy to see is potential behind this band, and who knows? Maybe if they last another year or two, we might see something special.

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