Thursday, August 11, 2016

album review: 'morning report' by arkells

I've been both anticipating and dreading this release.

More specifically, I've been anticipating and dreading this review, because for as much as I'm a fan of Canadian rock group the Arkells, I haven't exactly been wild about their creative decisions over the past few years. Their 2014 album High Noon went straight for more synthetic territory, de-emphasizing the rougher basslines and distortion in favour of gleaming textures and drum machines, which to me felt like the exact opposite direction one should take with the more political and self-serious subject matter. That didn't mean there weren't great songs - hell, 'Crawling Through The Window' made my list of my favourite songs of 2014 - but as a whole High Noon just didn't hold up to the melodic groove and fast-paced heaviness of their first two records.

And that didn't look like it was changing on their newest album Morning Report. Opening singles were sliding even further towards pop and seeming all the more plastic and slick, especially with lead-off singles like 'Private School', which sent up big red flags for me. Granted, that wasn't a guarantee things were completely off the rails - after all, my favourite songs from High Noon had been deep-cuts, even if 'Leather Jacket' was a pretty sweet tune - but I did have some reservations going into Morning Report. Were they justified?

Well, that depends a lot on what you were expecting from this record - because yes, it's much more of a pop release and it's got all the slick trappings that come with it, from the writing to the instrumentation and production. And as I've said in the past, this isn't inherently a bad idea if the band can make something out of it that's unique or punchy... and yet way too much of this new Arkells record feels midway between what both The Wombats and The 1975 have done better over the past eighteen months, and this time without even the track standouts that helped me like their work. And the exasperating thing is that many of the problems are hold-overs from High Noon, less outright failures but persistent miscalculations that have occurred ever since the band made their pop pivot. And again, that doesn't make the record bad, but it does mean it's easily the Arkells' least compelling record to date, at least for me.

So unsurprisingly, those are some loaded criticisms, so let's start off with our frontman Max Kerman - and I don't really have a lot of complaints. One thing I've appreciated in recent years is that the Arkells have shied away from piling effects on Kerman's voice to emphasize the synthetic pop side, and his wilder, more expressive delivery gives these songs a fair bit more personality than you'd expect. Now of the four producers who worked on this album, you can definitely tell whose more comfortable with his voice - Brian West's production on 'Private School' definitely does not do him any favours by emphasizing his more nasal tones - but overall Kerman can drive these songs well... with the exception of his falsetto range. I appreciate trying something outside of his comfort zone, but if you were taking inspiration from Lana Del Rey for 'Passenger Seat', trying a falsetto where you're not quite on key is the last thing you want to imitate.

Granted, that's a relatively minor issue compared to the production as a whole - and again, I feel I have to emphasize that even though I've always liked Arkells more when they were a rock act, I don't have an issue with the choice to use more keyboards. My problem is that the synth tones chosen nearly always clash badly with the rest of the mix, like the oddly flat tone on 'Private School', or the very shrill tone layered over the hook on 'My Heart's Always Yours', or the gummy synths layered over 'Savannah' and 'Round And Round' that get buzzy on the outro, or the tone drizzled over the mix on 'Hung Up', or that fizzy tone that was completely unneeded on 'A Little Rain (A Song For Pete)'. And these are just the tones where the clash is obvious - then you have the cases like 'Making Due' or the low oscillation on 'Come Back Home' where they just don't blend nearly as well as they should. The tonal choices are baffling to me here, not just because they stand out as being too close to the front of the mix, but they also undercut the foundation of solid bass, guitar, and piano grooves that were all the Arkells needed! And sure, I get why they're here - on tracks like 'Making Due' you can tell they were trying for a War On Drugs-esque swell but it just doesn't blend that well. And while I'm going to place some blame on the producers - whoever micced the horns on 'Drake's Dad' should have been replaced with whoever produced for them on the bridge of 'Savannah' or as accents on 'Hung Up' or the sax added to 'Come Back Home' - some of it has to fall back on the band too who has gradually pushed the guitars further away from driving the melodies. And that's frustrating because, again, there are some solid compositions here with the bombast of 'Savannah', the bass guitar build and solid driving groove on 'Making Due', the squonking attitude of 'Hung Up', the rattling tones on 'Come Back Home' and 'A Little Rain (A Song For Pete)' in the bass and guitar, and even the drippier pianos on 'Passenger Seat' and 'Hangs The Moon'.

Of course, now we get to the lyrics - and here's where we get to the one noticeable improvement from High Noon in that this record plays a little simpler with the framing and situations, and tends to move away from the preachiness that got under my skin on that last album. Oh, it still comes through on songs like the anti-music industry rant of 'Hung Up' - bit rich coming from what used to be a rock band going pop for the crossover - but dig into tracks like 'Private School' and they're actually clever enough to kind of work, half admiring of the social circle but just smart enough to know these over-privileged twits aren't worth their time - in one of my favourite lyrics, 'born on third base, thought they hit a triple'. Then there's 'Making Due', which falls into a weird spot trying to capture the numb helplessness of not being able to help as tragedies strike around the world... and yet the inexact pronouns and perspective that seemingly shifts from that of angry neglected victims back to Kerman makes it feel oddly scattershot and tonally inconsistent, not quite capturing the sarcastic insight that informed tracks like Springsteen's 'Born In The USA'. But really, those are mostly isolated tracks - instead this record plays through a pretty wide variety of relationship songs, where Kerman's earnestness plays to his advantage. Straightforward love songs like 'And Then Some' and 'My Heart's Always Yours' connect well, and the heartbreak of songs like 'Come Back Home' and the awkward breakup fallout through 'Passenger Seat' does work. I do have to question 'Savannah', which on the hook plays for young love that she wants to see last despite her sister's protests... and yet in the end he does drift away and it ends on a bit of a sour note, and it's hard to forget that when you have 'Hang The Moon' where he's promising he wouldn't do any of that. And yet, continuing the tradition of strong tracks about male friendship, I really liked 'A Little Rain (A Song For Pete)', which plays in very similar territory to 'Crawling Through Your Window' to making that connection - and hell, even though with the references it can feel a tad clumsy, 'Drake's Dad' does get to the root of guys who are running wild, who know what they're doing is reckless but are going to do it anyway, which the Arkells have a knack for pulling off.

But as a whole... there's a part of me that wants to be nicer to this record than I should be - I like raw earnestness, I like that the Arkells are at least trying to evolve their sound, even if it's not in a direction I think always flatters their more aggressive, wild tendencies. But those synth tone choices are a consistent turn-off, and when you pair it with lyrics that aren't always consistently strong... for me it's another 6/10 and only a recommendation if you're a fan of what they were doing on High Noon, and even then I'm not sure I'd put it up to that level. Not a bad record, but again, if this is the sound they're looking to show the world now that they have US distribution... well, it could have been better.

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