[26 July 2007]
PopMatters Music Reviews Editor
The members of Straylight Run embody change. When you consider the ashes the band rose from and the countless stories that surrounded singer John Nolan’s departure from Taking Back Sunday, the last thing anybody in the world expected when they gave their self-titled debut release a first listen was a project that featured more xylophones than electric guitars.
Then, after they seemingly tricked everyone into thinking that they would prefer the adult contemporary charts over, say, anything with the word “rock” in it, the Long Islanders shocked listeners with their half-tripped-out EP, Prepare to Be Wrong. Though Wrong did have its soft-rock moments, drummer Will Noon’s dive into the world of electronics lead fans to think that a more processed-conscious direction was coming whenever LP number two came around. After all, the EP’s single, “Hand in the Sky (Big Shot),” drew more comparisons to Nine Inch Nails than Nine Days.
Well, with The Needles the Space, the New York-based quartet’s latest effort, that new direction is now here. And while it may not be what Wrong hinted at, it certainly takes the band to places not even the biggest of Straylight fans could have predicted. And what comes of it is probably what the band wanted—an album filled with more confusion and instruments than one probably ever wanted.
“The Words We Say”, The Needles’ first track, is everything Nolan decided to personify upon beginning the band. Its simplistic sense matched with more under-production than a White Stripes’ album falls just short of whatever it is you can seemingly tell he is trying for. While the song’s child-like alliteration seems cute at first, it becomes overshadowed by the lyrical predictability that the band has already used up on their previous two releases.
Then, songs like “Who Will Save Us Now” and “Soon We’ll Be Living in the Future”, the album’s first single, fail to end at the places the band had in mind when they began writing the songs. The sense of something missing in both songs becomes painfully palpable and forces any listener to think that they laid both of these uninspired tracks quick enough so they could hurry up and grab a veggie-burger. In addition to feeling insincere, these two songs lack the confidence that shined on both previous releases.
With that said, the confusion and disingenuousness end whenever the band’s not-so-secret weapon, Michelle DaRosa, makes her grand entrance. Undeniably showcased more so on this release than any other Straylight effort, The Needles proves to be her official coming out party as her vocals span over half of the disc in some form or another.
Songs like the spacey, almost interesting “How Do I Fix My Head” and the irresistibly quirky “The Miracle That Never Came” are good enough to wake any listener who may have nodded off. While the former not only features DaRosa’s atmospheric vocals, it also gives Noon a green light to take the song wherever he desires, making the entire 4:49 trek a journey worth investigating. The latter, a road-tested fan favorite already, features numerous time-signature changes in such a charming way that it is ostensibly sown together better than anything a grandmother could achieve.
The only unfortunate moment on The Needles comes when DaRossa’s beautiful voice proves to not be enough on “Still Alone”. Here, on possibly the album’s worst track, the band brings in some horns, watches a couple of vaudeville-related movies and pretends to be something they aren’t: a ragtime band. Not only does this attempt not work on any level, but the song’s cheese factor forces any listener to question if they really want to do something or if they just want to play around with a bunch of instruments for a little while.
And that’s what proves to be The Needles the Space’s problem. While Nolan and his friends have made somewhat of a successful music career off of morphing into whatever they feel at the time, this is the first instance that it doesn’t quite work. All one can hope for is that this won’t be the last change on which these soft-rockers will embark.