Nashville’s Paper Route is one of those occasional bands who is tough to assess. At first blush, Absence, its first full album after a pair of EP’s, sounds like slick and boring ‘80s-influenced synth-pop. But after a few listens, the songs start to grow. The album is still coated in a sheen of glossy major-label mastering courtesy of Motown Records (Motown is putting out synth-pop these days?). There’s no space for the songs to really breathe under the layers and layers of programming and synth buzz. But that could be just as much due to the band’s own production choices (Absence is self-produced) as the guys on the mixing and mastering side. The end result is that there are some really good songs here, but it takes some time for it to surface.
Lyrically, the album is full of songs about love, loss and bad choices. Pretty standard stuff for a band who sometimes sounds like it would fit perfectly on a mixtape between the Human League and the Thompson Twins. But the presence of live drummer Gavin McDonald gives most of the songs a little more momentum than some of the band’s 80’s counterparts. The band also isn’t afraid to turn up the guitars from time to time, and while it never overwhelms the synths in the mix, guitar emerges here and there to play live riffs alongside all the artificial sounds. Paper Route’s two vocalists, JT Daly and Andy Smith, are both good singers, and their voices blend well together. But once again, the duo are never more than another element in the mix among the synths. The band doesn’t go out of its way to make the vocals stand out.
The up-tempo rockers and straight-up pop songs on the album are generally the ones that work the best here. “Wish”, with its strong melody and stuttering drum beat, also boasts a very catchy chorus. First single “Carousel” may be the standout track on the album. It’s a speedy rocker that produces some tension in the verses and then breaks it with a power-chord and fuzz-synth-dominated chorus. It also has an excellent 15-second breakdown mid-song where McDonald really gets to pound away on the drums. “Tiger Teeth” mines the ‘80s for all it is worth, with synth drums, keyboard bass and other bloopy, laser-beam style synths straight out of the Me Decade. “Good Intentions” is a darker lament and an effective change of pace. Later in the album, “Gutter” uses industrial, distorted synths and contrasts them with high-pitched violins to showcase another side of the band, while its follow-up “Are We All Forgotten” is another burst of warm pop that admonishes a lover: “Don’t you break my heart / Don’t you break my heart, again.”
Ironically, for an album on Motown, it’s when the band attempts to be soulful that it falls flat. Opening song “Enemy Among Us” repeats the title a lot and discusses the suspicions of a couple in a relationship but doesn’t generate much tension. In the middle of the album, “Be Healed” has some embarrassing falsetto “whoo-hoo-hoo’s” and doesn’t go anywhere interesting. “No Sudden Revelations” has the feel of a church hymn, an interesting musical choice that nevertheless falls flat. “Lover’s Anthem” sounds like a pale imitation of a TV on the Radio ballad. The problem with each of these songs is in the execution more than the composition. Neither of Paper Route’s vocalists really has the voice to pull off the kind of lush, emotional singing necessary for these kind of songs, so it makes them boring instead of compelling.
Absence is an interesting attempt at a full-band pop album that doesn’t quite succeed. Synth mastermind Chad Howat is a little too in love with his equipment to let Paper Route’s songs stand on its own. A few less layers of electronic sound might have helped some of these songs come into its own. Instead, the ever-present synths flatten out the band’s sound, making every song sound similar even when the underlying compositions are quite a bit different from each other. Paper Route feels like a band who is still figuring out what it wants to do and how it wants to do it, and Absence suffers because of it.