Tuesday, December 9, 2014

album review: 'talking is hard' by walk the moon

As many of you undoubtedly know, a lot of music pulls inspiration from older genres and styles, sometimes looking backwards to evoke a retro sound and style, sometimes looking forward to innovate. But with so much of pop culture pulling from different eras of itself, one needs to ask the question when it's less of an affectionate homage and more of a shameless ripoff, because in some cases it starts to become blatant, especially with pop music when you don't have a unique driving spirit behind it. And even then, taking the example of Lady Gaga, even she gets accused of outright ripping off Madonna when she does do more. Is it a factor of time, how many years that go by before an artist can draw from the past, or a matter of the influence's presence and clout and how sacrosanct one might consider their art, or how well the successor uses those influences or adapts them into something new.

Now these are heavy subjects to deal with the succession and progression of art, and are probably a little too heavy to be linked with Walk The Moon, an indie rock act who first burst onto the scene in 2010 and have been slowly gaining some steam thanks to some strong singles with quirky videos. And as I mentioned in the last Billboard BREAKDOWN, instrumentally they remind me a lot of The Killers, just minus some of the self-serious posturing, the grander lyrical scope, and the decadent insanity that used to characterize some of The Killers' best work. But bands that sound more like The Killers isn't a bad thing, and Walk The Moon have a loose, electric energy that made them fun. I wasn't sure how much it would really grip me, but at the end of the year, why not throw on a fun indie rock record, so I chose to check out their newest album Talking Is Hard, which has actually been getting some critical acclaim - is it worth it?

Honestly, not really. I will say that some of my initial judgments about the band might be misaligned, though, because they aren't so much 'Killers-lite' as they pull from dozens of prominent indie rock acts over the past decade to create their sound - which, strangely, is only really gripping for me when they stick to high-energy, lightweight dance tracks. But beyond that, I get a strangely hollow feeling whenever I listen through Talking Is Hard by Walk The Moon - a little analogous to the same hollow feeling that some have said they found whenever they listened to Bleachers' debut Strange Desire. But where that album managed to find themes and emotional weight to anchor it, Talking Is Hard doesn't quite stick the landing, at least for me.

So let's start with instrumentation and production, and I know wholeheartedly this is an issue for me as a music critic that most casual listeners will be able to ignore, but the hodgepodge of elements crammed together onto this album feel does feel like they're appropriated from a dozen different, more distinctive bands. I made The Killers comparison already, but between the fuzzier guitars, stiffer, 80s-inspired beats, the rollicking bass lines, I hear elements of Vampire Weekend, Foster The People, Franz Ferdinand, The 1975, Bleachers, and even Fall Out Boy at points. I'm not saying this is bad - with the exception of Foster the People, I like all of these bands - but they don't help Walk The Moon form a unique identity for me. If I were to say one area where they do stand out, it'd be in the interjection of some chiptune-inspired synths or for an icier sound reminiscent of La Roux, but this leads an issue of the production, namely that the mix can feel a little busy, not really focusing enough on the melody line across the choruses instead amping up the percusssion - which isn't bad, there's a lot of texture there, but without distinctive melodic progressions, it makes Walk The Moon feel even more anonymous. That said, there are points where they find a solid groove and it does pay good dividends, even if their inspiration is fairly obvious - 'Shut Up And Dance' has a fantastic groove, I liked the fluttering 80s-inspired melody at the top of the mix and the bassline on 'Avalanche', the thicker electronic-textures on 'Down In The Dumps' that reminded me a lot of early 80s synthpop in the vein of Styx, the bouncy Caribbean-inspired rhythm and melody of 'Walk This Body', and especially the synth-heavy shades of 'We Are The Kids' that reminded me a lot of modern Neon Trees with more distinctive color.

But here's the thing: one of the biggest reasons you remember some of these influential indie rock acts are the frontmen like Brandon Flowers or Alex Kapranos or Jack Antonoff or Tyler Glenn - these guys have huge, distinctive personalities that can match their instrumentation, or intricate songwriters like Pete Wentz or Ezra Koenig that can bring levels of nuance and intricacy. And in that department, Walk The Moon's Nicholas Petricca isn't quite in the same ballpark in terms of personality or range or power. He tends to stay more in his mid-to-upper range, and that strikes me as a misstep against heavier, synth-heavy production that tends to sit in a similar range and can clash with his vocals, and it's the very same complaint I'd level at Mark Foster, especially when they both have richer lower ranges they could use more. And to me his voice comes across as a little thin, especially when he tries to go for more of a raw delivery like on 'Up 2 U'. I'm not going to deny he's a versatile vocalist - for a record like this, he has to be - but he doesn't bring a lot of unique personality to the table as a singer for me.

Okay, so what about the lyrics? Well, let's be blunt - with the dance-heavy vibe of this album, you could easily make the argument the lyrics don't matter and can be ignored. And here's the funny thing: when the lyrics stick to simpler, more broadly sketched topics, the songs tend to work better, at least for me. 'Shut Up And Dance' is a perfect example, where the narrator is seeing love and she just wants him to shut up and just enjoy the ecstasy of the moment. 'Avalanche' takes a similar 'seize the moment' vibe with being starstruck by a girl on stage, 'Work This Body' is a success anthem, and 'We Are The Kids' is pure underdog populism. Hell, I even liked 'Different Colors' as just a come together dance track.

But where this album stumbles is when it tries to get more complicated. 'Up 2 U' takes the hard work, but fuses it with this sour tone as it addresses a girl that the narrator has to become hardened and cold to survive in the industry, and he's not going to change so it's all up to her. And the choice to play the song as demented and wild as it is probably wasn't the best, because it's very clear he's the one with the problem, and if he was trying to make commentary on what the industry does to people, the tone feels off. 'Portugal' has a similar problem, a relationship track that didn't work out, he moved on because she hadn't grown up enough, and yet he still is leading her on with the chorus, which rubs me the wrong way. Then there's 'Spend Your $$$', which is calling out girls for being shallow - yet the first verse seems to imply he's shopping just as much and is just as shallow, with really makes the song's condescension feel lack weight. Now you could argue it's intentional - the album's loose theme is surrounding difficulties in communication, either self-imposed or otherwise, hence the title Talking Is Hard, but the message of the song seems that they find a connection in shared materialism. Hell, across this album the theme seems less that people should communicate and talk out their issues but the opposite - 'Shut Up And Dance', 'Different Colors', hell, 'Up 2 U' has the narrator talking and looking like a complete asshole. Every time there is conversation on this album, it's rarely framed as positive - and that strikes me as shockingly adolescent and shallow in its own right. And you know, it's an interesting and unique theme, but it's so thinly explored and articulated that the songs trying to touch on it don't hold up for me.

So at the end of the day, Talking Is Hard by Walk The Moon is better the less you think about it. If you can ignore the cavalcade of obvious influences and occasionally questionable lyrics, there are definitely elements to enjoy here and legitimately great songs. But as a whole it doesn't really click for me. I'm feeling a solid 6/10 and a tentative recommendation - it's an interesting and varied record, and it's at its best at its most shallow and populist and fun, but I don't it lasting, at least for me.

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