Tuesday, January 17, 2017

album review: 'night people' by you me at six

...so I don't really cover a lot of pop punk and pop rock. And hey, that happens - even this early in the year my schedule is filling up - but it also means that outside of the acts that crossed over and made a significant impact in the mainstream, I haven't really kept up with the scene, especially if they broke trying to capitalize on the trend in the mid-2000s and never really caught on. One thing I do know is that it tended to be a more American scene, rooted in disaffected pockets across suburbia or just from California as a whole, and while Canada has a scene that somehow has remained somewhat relevant to this day, if you cross over the U.K... well, beyond an act like Neck Deep that managed to break a few years ago, there's very few with consistent name recognition.

So I'll admit I was surprised to find about You Me At Six, a UK pop punk act from Surrey that released their debut in 2008... in other words, right into an oversaturated scene that guaranteed they'd have a hard time standing out. But having gone through their discography leading up to this review and if I'm going to be brutally honest, that might have been hard regardless. To me their two biggest influences are mid-period Jimmy Eat World and early Fall Out Boy, but less anthemic and heartfelt than the former and less unique and overwritten than the latter... in short, they didn't really stand out, not helped by records that ran long and a lack of immediately distinctive storytelling and wordplay. They got angrier on Sinners Never Sleep - which more often than not translated to a lyrical obnoxiousness that didn't have the charisma, wit, or firepower to back it up - and while shades of maturity began to slip into Cavalier Youth, it only came through on a small selection of songs that only ever rose to being good, not great, with the rest really blurring together. To me, they always seemed like a bit more like a singles act - a few good songs, but you'd never get through an entire album and find it interesting, so I have to admit a lot of trepidation going into Night People, which reportedly was heavier and was also their shortest album to date. Okay, promising, and at the very least I didn't expect this to be bad, so did You Me At Six deliver something I could like?

Well, if I'm being brutally honest... not really. The more listens I gave Night People the more I was absolutely convinced that You Me At Six have reached a point in their career where they're at least aware that the pop punk scene that spawned them has left them behind, which leads to a record that tries to be a lot of things and overall doesn't end up as much of anything. I'm not saying this is outright bad - it's certainly listenable rock music for the most part - but I get even less of a sense of coherent identity from this group than usual, and nearly ten years into your career, that's a problem.

And let's start with the instrumentation and production - at their best, as I described earlier You Me At Six could walk the line with some anthemic, occasionally abrasive tracks with a more prominent guitar line, and for the large part those elements do cross into Night People, like on the title track with the rugged stomp of the groove... which might as well be a Black Keys or White Stripes leftover. And that issue persists when you get to the next song, which might as well be album filler from Queens Of The Stone Age, or the next couple tracks which with their very liquid guitar work and presentation wouldn't be out of place on modern pop rock radio from an act like The Script. I'm not precisely complaining - I don't mind acts sounding like Queens Of The Stone Age or The White Stripes - but if you're going in that rougher direction, you need some texture and gristle to make it connect. And not only is the cymbals production muddy as hell across this album, the riffs have more of a buzzy flatness than any sort of real muscle or kick to them, not helped by someone who thought adding in a bunch of extraneous phaser effects and leaning on the whammy bar was a good idea. And the layers feel really clumsily blended, especially on songs like 'Heavy Soul' or the overly cluttered weedy groove of 'Make Your Move'. Hell, there isn't even much acoustic warmth or texture on a song like 'Take On The World' where it had the space in the mix to build it, but the pickup just doesn't have much depth. It seems like a case that instead of letting these existing tones simmer or develop deeper weight, they added in more sound and layers to compensate, and man, it feels thin. And again, this is not saying that there aren't good grooves here: the title track, 'Plus One', 'Give', especially 'Can't Hold Back', there's promise here, and I liked how 'Spell It Out' really built some thicker muscle as the song developed.

But this is where we have to consider the rest of the song, and that includes the vocals and writing. In the former case... eh, Josh Franchesci is a fine enough singer for this sort of music, he's got some versatility, and while I don't think the mix flatters him with the added, weedier layers or the extremely clean pickup - which doesn't really match some of the instrumentation - he handles most of these tracks fine. What I don't really like are the lyrics and themes, mostly because they show that You Me At Six haven't really evolved when it comes to songwriting. On the one hand, if you can buy into some of the more swaggering rock tracks like the title track, 'Plus One', or the hookup on 'Can't Hold Back'... well, it's not elegant or all that attractive, but it's not really framed as such and I can kind of get into it in a bitterly sarcastic sort of way. And it becomes abundantly clear that like Arctic Monkeys ahead of them You Me At Six are characterizing modern nightlife as the refuge of damaged, broken people trying to find any sort of escape and never really getting there, and when it tries to tap into that like on 'Give' or parts of 'Brand New' or 'Heavy Soul', it's got a little weight. The problem is that the worse instincts of the writing get in their own way, like on 'Brand New' where on the second verse it's implied that he's looking for this girl to forget what happened in the past so he can step in. Or take 'Spell It Out', which with its lines like 'I'm not a savior/I ain't no traitor/they're the ones that lie to you', with the sour tone and framing it almost rings like 2017's first gaslighting anthem. But that's implying our protagonist even has that much of an interest, as 'Make Your Move' is all about not having time for people - something that was just implied in the meatheaded hookup of 'Plus One' - or especially 'Swear', which falls into You Me At Six's ugly habit of crapping on another band reminiscing about the past who might say You Me A Six drew from them. And especially considering how much You Me At Six is not innovating with their sound and drawing upon other acts, the miserable air of the song is just intolerable. And none of it is helped by the fact many of these songs don't build to satisfying endings - it might be their shortest record to date, but a fair few of these songs even the closer feel like they were chopped off abruptly mid-musical phrase, and it doesn't so much leave me wanting but exasperated.

But really, I'm going to be very blunt here: I doubt I'll remember this album. Look, this was a band that broke late on a scene that passed them by and then dissolved, and with Night People they come across as having even less of a distinctive identity. The hooks are not stellar, the writing is bare-bones, and there's not enough colour, unique personality, or solid production to really grip me here. And for a record that wants to run wild in the night, not only does it not feel dangerous in its textures but it's also not even all that fun in a wild, out-of-control vein that could have redeemed it. For me, it's a strong 5/10 but only a recommendation if you're a fan, and even then I'm not sure this is the sound their fans want from them. If you're curious, check it out, but otherwise, there's other rock that you could be listening to that isn't this.

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