Thursday, April 6, 2017

album review: 'zombies on broadway' by andrew mcmahon in the wilderness

I'm wasn't the music critic who coined the term 'silent majority' acts, but I'm not sure I could think of a more subtle and yet cutting descriptor for certain bands. You know the type - the groups that are just trendy enough to snag commercials and TV montage music, but never artistically challenging enough to actually be interesting or compelling for critics. And thus it should be absolutely no surprise that I find these groups painfully frustrating to review. It's not even that they make bad music so much as it's just bland as all hell to me, especially when they put on airs they don't deserve - something that the average music consumer doesn't understand and thus gets annoyed when I call it out.

And I don't think there was an act that jumped to the top of the silent majority act pantheon faster than Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness. The titular guy hasn't always been in the wilderness, and has been around longer than many people know - he was part of the emo group Something Corporate around the turn of the millennium, later went solo with a bunch of session players under the moniker Jack's Mannequin - both acts which are apparently remembered fondly by people who heard them at the time - and then went towards a piano-driven indie pop direction under the new name Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness. And look, I heard a little from him when 'Cecilia And The Satellite' crossed landed on the Hot 100, and for research I checked out his debut album... and that was enough to tell me I had no need to hear anything more from him; it's generally tepid piano-driven adult alternative that I already got plenty of growing up in the mid-2000s, and he's not doing anything that Daniel Powter, James Blunt, or Five For Fighting didn't do, just with a little more blocky percussion. But, thanks to folks on Patreon there was enough interest in me covering his sophomore album that it wound up at the top of my schedule nearly two months late. So, might as well get through this quick, what did I find in Zombies On Broadway?

Honestly, I got exactly what I expected - a project that is listenable for the most part and will inevitably nab a few well-timed commercial slots - but if you expect me to remember any of this beyond a few cuts, you're going to be left disappointed. And even though I wasn't really following this guy back when he was with Something Corporate or Jack's Mannequin, I think I get what his appeal was - and yet I also see how much of that has just fizzled away with time and a desire to make hits, and I can definitely see that as disappointing, at least to the people who care.

So to explain this, for a change of pace let's start with the lyrics and writing, and the compliment that I will give Andrew McMahon: even if I don't think this record gets all that deep or profound in its thematic arc, I can at least respect the poetry here. The guy knows his was around some evocative imagery: planes with their wings on fire on 'So Close' representing perilous risk, the soaring love on 'Shot Out Of A Cannon', the balance between whimsy and wonder in the midnight adventure of 'Fire Escape', and especially the 'heart as a building' metaphor expanded across 'Love And Great Buildings', probably one of the better cuts here. It's not the first time I'm reminded of the little bits of cleverness that used to populate Owl City's material, and to his credit McMahon actually does tap into some of the bone-deep weariness and pull between his life as an artist and his family on the other side of the country. 'Dead Man's Dollar' lays some of the foundation, and to his credit McMahon ends the record strong with 'Birthday Song', coming to the acknowledgement that he can't keep partying and travelling the same way he used to, which leads to the open question of how many years he has left in the music industry. And when you couple it with some scattered bits of wit, I can definitely see McMahon's skill as a pop songwriter - even if I can find some of the conclusions he hits a little lacking in greater nuance, or at some points a little too overwritten for their own good, like 'Brooklyn, You're Killing Me' about his move to another borough, or the getting over an ex song of 'Don't Speak For Me (True)' - you'd think that being married with kids he'd have set songs like this aside, especially when they get this sour, but unfortunately not.

But still, all of this highlights a style of writing that could lead to some potent music, maybe in the resurgent emo scene where that sort of overwritten detail is often prized... the problem is that Andrew McMahon is making pop music, and a particularly soulless brand of it at that. And that's not a knock on pop - I've had pop records top my personal year end lists, I know when I hear quality hooks and melodies... and I'm sorry, but the second I start digging into the production and instrumentation, the less I hear it. As you'd expect most of the main melodies are rooted in pianos, with heavier blocks of drum machines operating as percussion to supplement whatever bass guitar that can hold a groove and even a bit of actual guitar that you might hear if you listen specifically for it, especially when this album tries to ape Capital Cities in a particularly limp imitation of retro-disco on 'So Close' or 'Shot Out Of A Cannon'. But at least those tracks actually have groove - the weedy melody and echoing snap of 'Don't Speak For Me (True)', the hints of acoustic guitar against the glittery mix on 'Fire Escape', and that's before you get the incredibly clunky oscillating synth and percussion line on 'Island Radio' - it sounds like pop that would have been churned out by committee to roughly match the sounds of the past four years, just with any actual personality or texture in the percussion blasted away. Would it surprise you to hear there are plenty of millennial whoops trying to give this record any sense of earnest swell - hell, I'm just surprised I don't hear trap snares! That's not saying there isn't some impact - the breakbeat-esque line on 'Brooklyn, You're Killing Me' isn't bad, and the main groove switch behind 'Love And Great Buildings' had some promise, but I don't hear anything here that stands out, or pushes any boundary, or shows any of the personality that you'd expect would match the writing.

But all of this takes away from the biggest problem: Andrew McMahon himself. And again, this isn't saying he's a bad singer - he's got pipes, he's got earnestness... but man, his voice does not fit against this sort of production. Part of this might be poor choice of vocal melodies - he'll drag out syllables on songs like 'Walking In My Sleep' in a way that I found profoundly annoying - but the fact is that his voice is more nasal and thin, and with his choice of emphasis on certain words he'd be a natural fit for production that was looser and more flexible - which is the exact opposite of the blocky drum machines and inert grooves that he has. Worse still is the fact that he's trying to carry these heavier, anthemic songs with big choruses, so he piles on the multi-tracking - and yet instead of giving his voice the depth and swell to anchor these songs, it only amplifies the volume of his midrange, which just isn't enough to give these tunes the impact he wants. He's a singer capable of a lot more dimension than his production gives him, and that's a damn shame.

But really, the more I listened through this project the more sad I felt. Andrew McMahon is easily making the least interesting or relevant music of his entire career - and yet it's the stuff that's going gold and making him money, and with a family now, he's probably going to keep making it in order to keep a steady paycheck. And you know, I'm not blaming him for that - we all have responsibilities, we have to make compromises - but at the same time, there are ways of making pop in this vein that can sound modern and yet doesn't feel so stale or formulaic. Look at Marianas Trench or Foxes - hell, look at twenty one pilots, who given similarities in their writing style I'm surprised that Andrew McMahon isn't emulating more! But those acts have a flair and personality that I'm not seeing here, which for me means I'm giving this a light 5/10 and I can't really recommend this. But again, Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness is a silent majority act, this will probably do well enough regardless of what I say two months late - and for his sake, I hope it pays off.

No comments:

Post a Comment