It seems like it happens to every indie rock band that features a vocalist who sings in a thick, full-bodied baritone. Lazy critics pull out the quick and cheap comparisons. “Hey,” they say, “these guys sound like Joy Division and Bauhaus, with their low vocals and their doom and gloom lyrics.” From there, the review almost writes itself. It happened to Interpol at the beginning of the decade, and now I’m about to do it to War Tapes. But to be fair, this wouldn’t occur so often if these bands didn’t make it so damn easy. Interpol’s first album was chock-full of angst. Its spare musical arrangements made the comparisons natural. It wasn’t until later on, when the band lightened up and broadened their sound, that they really came into their own (although you’ll surely see Turn on the Bright Lights on a lot of “Best of the Decade” lists come December).
The Continental Divide starts off with more of a hard-rock edge than any of the aforementioned bands, but it’s singer/guitarist Neil Popkin’s lyrics that invite the traditional comparisons. By the third song, “She Lied”, he’s singing, “all day long / I sit and communicate / with the dead corpse that I call my girlfriend.” A few tracks later, it’s “Mind is Ugly”, where he reflects on his violent thoughts and includes the chorus, “I never wanted you to know / I never wanted you to see me this way / I’m not the man you think I am / And when I think, my mind is ugly.” It’s pretty much exactly what you’d expect from a band that sounds like this.
But War Tapes seem to be interested in much more than just tortured angst. The Continental Divide actually covers quite a bit of musical ground. The opening song, “The Night Unfolds”, roars out of the gate at high speed, with chugging guitar chords and pounding drums. Bassist Becca Popkin (Neil’s sister) adds high, breathy backing vocals that contrast nicely with Neil’s, especially near the end of the song. In fact, Becca’s vocals add a welcome extra layer to War Tapes’ sound whenever she shows up. This low/high contrast works really well on the band’s poppier songs. The mid-tempo “Dreaming of You” is a purely positive fantasy about dreaming of a beautiful girl. It features a great big open sound reminiscent of U2 and has an impressive, if a bit cliché, bombastic build-up section in the middle of the song. “All the World’s a Stage” also finds Neil in a good mood lyrically. Musically the song is just as positive, with nice harmonies from Becca while lead guitarist Matt Bennett provides a cool guitar line consisting of continuous sixteenth notes.
Closer “Fast Lane” is appropriately epic, starting with a lush, 30-second piano introduction before the band comes in at a relaxed tempo, as Neil croons about life being shorter than we think. Then the band takes off around 3:45, going much faster for 30 seconds before briefly pulling back into the original tempo. Once they speed up again, though, it’s all out for the rest of the song, as Neil actually shouts his way through the outro. The track ends with a three-minute ballad, played on an out-of-tune piano and sung by Becca. It’s an interesting contrast to the rest of the album, even if it is intended to be a goof.
The Continental Divide is War Tapes’ first full-length album, and there’s a solid amount of variety here as well as some good songwriting. Nothing about this collection of songs is particularly fresh, but it’s well put-together, and I admire the band’s willingness to try different things. Yes, a cursory glance would seem to put them in direct lineage from the bands I mentioned before, but they have a lot more to offer. Even so, the band seems to embrace those comparisons, defining themselves as “heart-quaking doom-pop” on their MySpace page.