Tuesday, August 1, 2017

album review: 'last young renegade' by all time low

So maybe I'm not seeing the arguments anymore, but I remember back in the early-to-mid 2000s - hell, probably earlier than that - the debate surrounding pop punk. And make no mistake, as the genre ebbed and flowed in popularity, the split became pronounced: the old guard who preferred the rougher, more aggressive punk side, and the more mainstream-accessible crowd who didn't care. And while I don't really see this debate much anymore, from what I can see... look, on average I'm going to gravitate to where the rougher, the better, but I'm also the first to admit that it's not the best fit for all bands. There's a spectrum when it comes to pop punk, and for every punk band that 'sold out' when they went pop, there are a few more pop-friendly acts that courted rougher audiences and didn't always stick the landing.

So take a band like All Time Low, and right from the very beginning I knew these guys would likely wind up closer to radio-friendly pop rock than anything super aggressive or political. And that was fine: they wrote fun, catchy hooks and when they got signed with Interscope, it seemed like a logical step. But maybe it was just poor timing - Dirty Work came out in the middle of the club boom in 2011, where if you weren't in Canada pop rock wasn't getting airplay - but it wasn't long before All Time Low was back on their indie label Hopeless and churning out more reasonably well-received pop punk records records. And to be completely honest, more often than not there wasn't much of a difference in their production or writing - I've listened to every All Time Low album and I found a lot of their material really runs together - but I knew it wasn't long before they'd be back on a major label, and so I wasn't surprised when they signed back with Fueled By Ramen. And since it's almost an unspoken law that Fueled By Ramen records tend to share musical tropes year after year, when buzz was suggesting All Time Low was featuring more 80s-inspired synthpop and new wave elements - hell, they brought in Tegan And Sara - I felt like I knew exactly what to expect from Last Young Renegade. Did I get it?

Well, yes and no. Here's the thing: I completely understand why the critical reception to Last Young Renegade, especially from fans, has been mixed to disappointed at best. They were promised a slick, slightly more conceptual record that maybe even got a little darker and instead got a very middle-of-the-road slice of underwhelming modern pop rock, with whatever punk edge nearly gone completely in favor of slicker polish that the band has never quite escaped. I think the difference for me is that while all of that is true, I've never been all that impressed or engaged by All Time Low anyway and thus while I can consider this a lesser entry in their discography - and it is - I'm not really all that annoyed or exasperated about it. 

Hell, considering how nondescript so much of the record sounds, I think the larger challenge with this review will be remembering enough to describe it. The most immediate comparison that leaped to my mind listening to this record, at least conceptually, was Linkin Park's Living Things, which actually had some promising melodies but the production did absolutely nothing to flatter or intensify them, and that description fits this record to a tee. There's no real bass groove intensity or rollick, the main liquid guitar licks are nearly always placed to compete with the muddy cymbals or obvious drum machines - and more often than not they lose out - and the entire mix is dampened by synths that don't pick up much melody and a thick cushion of reverb and synthetic vocal samples. In other words, if you've heard a modern pop song's tone or texture in the past three years, you should know exactly how this album would sound, but what gets exasperating is that it feels like precisely the wrong approach for a band like All Time Low, who want to go for big anthemic bombast but never get the necessary support. You expect the guitars to roar and explode, pick up some bite or texture on, say, the obvious punk callback of 'Nice2KnoU', but despite the tempo there's no edge or distinctive tune, just an indistinct blur of strums that can't even pick up significant feedback or swell. Typically a good way to utilize reverb in these cases is to emphasize specific elements, like a powerhouse solo or massive riff or percussion accent, but the blanket approach places everything on the same level and any distinctive tune just loses character. That's not saying there aren't elements that had potential - I liked the darker rattle of the guitar that opened 'Nightmares', or the darker echoes playing off the bass on 'Dark Side Of Your Room', but without properly centering or accentuating those elements, or hooks that can play off those anchor points, they just become indistinct.

Now again, that's not saying there aren't moments with promise - ironically when this record tilts even further into the synths for a mostly workable atmosphere. I'll be the first to say that I wish 'Dirty Laundry' actually exploded more beyond the final hook, but the restrained chugging groove actually worked, and even if 'Afterglow' feels overmixed it's got some shimmering gloss to the effects that I liked. And unsurprising to nobody Tegan & Sara are very welcome on 'Ground Control', offering a solid emotive counterpoint in the spacey blur of synths and tighter groove - it's not as relentless or sharp as your average Tegan & Sara synthpop song, but it'll do in a pinch. But one thing they do add is some welcome support for Alex Gaskarth... and honestly, while I think he doesn't deliver as raw or potent of a performance as he could beyond songs like 'Drugs & Candy', it's not all his fault. Again, this is where the production hurts All Time Low, because the vocal placement within the mix can be haphazard and while they'll pile on the effects, you often get the impression stronger multi-tracking might help the anthemic vibe more than all the tacked on millennial whoops would.

But here's the thing: if the writing was there I could be forgiving of underwhelming production or delivery - I wouldn't say anything on that recent Deaf Havana record was revolutionary from a production standpoint but delivery and solid songs greatly elevated it. Unfortunately, All Time Low have never struck me as distinct songwriters and in going broad on Last Young Renegade they only serve to make these songs feel less distinct. The metaphors of troubled relationships, small town departures, and burned out flickers of love feel increasingly pedestrian, not precisely bad but nothing all that distinct or new either, rarely helped by delivery to add subtext or nuance. 'Nice2KnoU' is perhaps the most bizarre example - for a song supposedly celebrating a small-town come-up, it seems in an awful hurry to move to the next town. Or take 'Dark Side Of Your Bedroom', which is playing for being taken advantage of in a bad relationship and learning to brush it off, but the emotional dynamic feels so muddled that I can't really tell if its gunning for sympathy, exasperation, or anger! Similar case for 'Life Of The Party', which focuses on a wild debauched night and Gaskarth losing his connection with himself, but it seems to missing that added bit of complexity to actually step away from that life and what that consequence might bring. And it's not saying that they can't get some of that nuance - I liked how 'Dirty Laundry' acknowledges that history in relationships can be hard to overlook but since it makes up who they both are they should embrace as much as they can, or the foundation of trust and love beyond distance on 'Ground Control'. But again, on a ten song record that's gunning to be all anthems, there are way too many songs where the writing just feels interchangeable or lacking distinctive detail or character - not egregiously bad, but not remotely memorable either.

...and that's probably the way I'd sum up Last Young Renegade as a whole. Look, I'm not against this sort of new wave shift in principle, but for All Time Low it put a damper on their greatest strengths and didn't do enough to compensate, leading to a muddy, mostly forgettable project that I understand why the hardcore fans turned on it in droves. Really, I'm surprised I had as much to say about it as I did, because I'm still giving this a 5/10 and only really recommended if you're curious - hell, Fueled by Ramen put out better material in this vein with Paramore's last album, All Time Low didn't need to go here! But hey, when you stick with the house label sound you'll reap both dividends and losses, so if All Time Low stick there... well, we'll see what happens.

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