[7 January 2008]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
A friend and I were recently discussing how rare it is to see a strictly serious fiction reading. Often, the author feels a need to be funny and charming, to win his audience over. In the end, it makes for an entertaining experience, but sometimes I’m hard-pressed to remember what the actual reading was about, never mind if it was any good.
It seems like the same problem when I approach a band like the Motion Sick. There’s a number of indie-pop acts out there who employ campy jokes and ‘80s references into their songs, and they get branded “quirky” or “hip” or “smart”. The Motion Sick, for better or worse, often falls into that trap. It’s a shame, really, because their first record, Her Brilliant Fifteen, was a surprisingly solid piece of jangly pop. That album showed the band was at their most charming not when they were smirking through nerd trivia, but when they were singing about doe-eyed heartache.
Now, with The Truth Will Catch You, Just Wait…, they have tipped the scales. Unfortunately, it is not a tipping towards a more serious approach, as the title implies, but rather a tip even further towards the self-reflexive. And while some bands can pull this off, here it often gets in the Motion Sick’s way. “30 Lives” is a great, poppy love song. Singer Michael Epstein just wants to spend 30 lives with his girl, and if the sentiment seems cliched, it is at least earnest. The problem is that, at the end of the song, it devolves into a sing-along in which we’re invited to chant the cheat code to the classic Nintendo game Contra—and if you don’t know it, count yourself lucky. It’s the sort of sophomoric thing that pop-punkers tend toward, and with the same disastrous results.
Later in the record, on “Walk on Water”, Epstein sings “I can walk on water, as long as its frozen”, and while it is yet another tired joke, this one works better because it at least stays within the song’s context and is also tied to the emotional drive of the song. It still comes off as camp, but it is a much more acceptable brand of camp in a song that may be a bit light on calories, but is catchy enough to overcome that fault.
“The Owls Are Not What They Seem” is the best track here, because the band beefs itself up and brings the rock. It sounds much less cutesy, and they even break up the piece a bit with some interesting breakdown moments later in the song. It a sign of the band the Motion Sick could be —and were on their previous release—but doesn’t ever quite make it to this new record. It is also, not coincidentally, much more serious lyrically. While you can feel Epstein may be reaching past his grasp, the song has an ambition that the rest of these tracks sorely lack. It helps carry the weight, and gives “Walk on Water” a tough brother to go into the fight with, but they alone can’t carry the rest of the album along.
Late in the record, the Motion Sick try their hand at “Love Will Tears Us Apart”, and it is perhaps the best picture of where this band breaks down. The Nintendo-name-dropping and half-smirk of these other tracks renders this cover flat. Epstein doesn’t sound at all like he knows what love will really do to us, certainly not in the way a super-brooder like Ian Curtis did. The Motion Sick may want to be that conflicted, but unfortunately when you strip away the jokes and mugging, they don’t manage to tell much of a story.