Wednesday, November 15, 2017

album review: 'what if nothing' by walk the moon

So I've always been a little on the fence about Walk The Moon - probably a good bit more than many people expect, it all you know them from is the 2015 smash hit 'Shut Up And Dance'. And yes, that song did make my year end list for the best hit songs in 2015, but there was a part of me always a little distant from it, mostly because I always questioned how much I liked it because it was Walk The Moon... or because it sounded so much like The Killers-lite.

And look, I have often praised plenty of acts for calling back to the past, but what I've stressed is that the act should do something to make themselves distinct from their influences, and covering Walk The Moon's record Talking Is Hard in 2014... look, it's not a bad album, but it didn't have that memorable star quality for me, not helped by an underwhelming frontman and lyrics that didn't often click when they aimed higher. So when I heard that Walk The Moon was heading in a more electronic-inspired direction - because they're an "indie" band in 2017 and of course they are - I at least had the hope that they were going to do something interesting this time around. On the other hand the early buzz was suggesting they fumbled this too, so I really had no expectations on quality - but what the hell, what did we find on What If Nothing? know, I was being a smartass on Twitter a day or two ago and I said that Walk The Moon should pick a personality and just stick with it, but after giving What If Nothing entirely too many listens, it feels disappointingly apt in describing much of what we got. It's not really a bad record - although there are more than your fair share of questionable decisions - and there's a part of me that does appreciate the wild genre hopping from dance punk to indie rock to new wave to more mainstream-leaning pop, but the more I started digging for a core within this band, the more I kept coming up empty.

And here's the thing: if I felt that Walk The Moon were taking their sound in a place that was interesting or distinct or competently executed I'd be a lot more forgiving of many of the tunes on this record - and more often than not, it feels like it'll fall short in one of those qualifiers. Yes, 'Headphones' being an out-of-nowhere slice of dance punk was fun and welcome, it's one of the better songs here... but it's also something that either The Strokes or LCD Soundsystem would have done better fifteen years ago and they wouldn't have felt the need to tack on so many gratuitous effects. The LCD Soundsystem comparison becomes all the more pronounced on 'All I Want' - and yes, the guitar solo is enough to elevate it to one of the better songs here - but when you consider the deeper influence is Talking Heads, it can't help but feel like a copy of a copy. And you get a somewhat similar case for 'Surrender' - the Bleachers comparison in the tight synth groove is most apparent, especially if you want compare to their song 'Nothing Is U' from earlier this year, but at least if they're going to play for U2-esque bombast that's something that doesn't feel as recycled these days. Compare that to 'Kamikaze', where whatever guitar melody we get could have been copy-pasted from a Shawn Mendes tune, and not one of the better ones! But that lack of melody is a persistent problem across this album, a choice to embrace more dense and loud percussion lines and leave the guitars to pick up some form of new wave groove or get muscled out in favor of buzzy synth tones that unfortunately end up clashing with more of the multi-tracked vocals than they should, and more often not the basslines are left high and dry trying to provide some awkward support like on 'Press Restart'.

And this strikes me as a serious misuse of Walk The Moon's strengths, because at their core, they're a band that aims for broad strokes and big emotions and the sort of 80s-inspired melodies and falsetto that is completely comfortable going over the top, like what we get on the closing track 'Lost In The Wild'. I might not be the biggest fan of Nicholas Petricca's vocals - he reminds me a lot of Sameer Gadhia of Young the Giant in that I doubt I could pick his voice out of a lineup of indie rock singers - but when his falsetto gets some support in the lower end, he's pretty damn credible. Hell, 'Tiger Teeth' is the best song on the entire album because the melodic hook and multitracking is the most well-arranged and supported against the synth leads - if Walk The Moon want to become a synthpop or new wave band in this vein, I'd see them as pretty credible. The problem is that right after that song we get the heavily autotuned 'Sound Of Awakening', six minutes of gross vocal production that sounds like a bad Genesis reject before the non-groove kicks in only to collapse without real melody, and it murders any momentum this record might have! I get experimentation in this vein, but if there was a point that Crossey and Elizondo should have eased back on overdone excess without purpose, it is here! But that's the other frustrating thing: both of these producers have the experience to coax the band towards tones and grooves that flatter them, so why do we get such ugly melodic clash on 'Can't Sleep (Wolves)', or the misshapen and mishandled groove shifts on 'In My Mind', or how 'Feels Good To Be High' sounds less psychedelic and more like a modern Everything Everything ripoff! 

But here's the thing: even if I'm not crazy about Petricca's vocals or the lack of consistent melody anchoring these songs or the obvious points of comparison in style, the majority of this could be excused if the writing was up to par... and this is where I can't help but feel Walk The Moon falls flat again. My issue with much of the poetry behind Talking Is Hard was that it took some interesting points about human communication and couldn't go deeper, and this time around with more songs exploring a breakup in our protagonist's life, the topics naturally trend a little simpler, a little more conventional. Now I'd argue this isn't quite a bad thing: songs like the post-breakup aching of 'Surrender', the acknowledgement of how he tended to swallow up his partners in his life on 'Tiger Teeth', the curdled anger at seeing this ex with another on 'Headphones', even the symbolic birth and death of the relationship on 'Sound Of Awakening' or some of the paranoia that touches later tracks aren't bad in showing a more nuanced picture of our protagonist... but it's not a consistent one. For as much as 'All I Want' is about chasing internal validation of one's self, it feels less like a critical examination of one's flaws post-relationship and more just cheap affirmation, which makes the clinical self-flagellation of 'Kamikaze' feel even more disjointed, where he seems surprised this girl is actually sticking around for him despite suicidal abandon... granted, he also calls this girl 'mama', but that's one of many odd lyrical choices that feel less intentionally strange and more just not thought through, like the wish to always be high on 'Feels Good To Be High' that doesn't seem to have a shred of irony. What it feels more than anything is thin, perhaps most pronounced on the single 'One Foot', which is about taking that next step into the empty void without anything to work from and doing it together... look, I appreciate earnestness, but it needs to be anchored in more than just empty trappings - or if it is, have the self awareness to say something more about it!

And that's what ultimately really bugs me about Walk The Moon on What If Nothing: for a band that pulls from so many obvious influences, when I can't find more distinctive text at the root of their music I'm left feeling hollow. And no, I'm not saying all of those influences had much more to say in their time, but here it feels even thinner and less potent, a major label repackaging tones and power that could transcend shortcomings from the genuine article but just feels flimsy and underweight here. That's not saying Walk The Moon doesn't have potential going forward - some of their more spacious, synth-driven swell on their ballads were pretty solid - but beyond that this is a very light 6/10 and pretty hard for me to recommend. It's certainly passable, but you've heard the majority of it before, and I'd be hardpressed to not point you in that direction.

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