As the story goes, Paper Tongues was signed by American Idol’s Randy Jackson after lead singer Aswan North handed him a slip of paper with the address for the band’s MySpace page. It is easy to see what Jackson heard in these songs. Each one has a sheen to it. They feel laminated, pre-packaged to rock an arena. North definitely has a voice that can soar to the upper bleachers. But there’s very little going on here, lyrically or musically, that will fill arenas in the first place.
About half the songs on the album are built around a rap-rock structure targeted at listeners who feel nostalgic about Limp Bizkit. “Ride to California” is the best of this bunch, but like all the hybrid songs on the album, it lacks any of the passion or anger that drives successful bands like Rage Against the Machine and Linkin Park. So, while a song like “Ride to California” bounces along comfortably with a catchy vocal hook, it gives the listener nothing to really sink any teeth into. These tunes all end up sounding a bit like a Disney Channel alum’s idea of rebellion.
The rest of the album is filled out with songs that fit more squarely in Paper Tongue’s comfort zone—straight-up classic rock. Songs like “Trinity” and “Get Higher” are pleas for bombastic anthem rock superstardom. But they fall short because the only instrument that gets showcased is North’s voice. There is hardly a moment on this album where any of the other musicians do anything particularly interesting. In fact, it is tough to believe that this is a seven-piece band. What is everyone else doing? Picking out an interesting guitar riff or a bass line is nearly impossible. The drums chug along in the background harmlessly. The two keyboardists spend a lot of time holding the same chords. The goal seems to be to create a generic hum of sound behind North, which doesn’t serve him or the band particularly well.
Talking about the lyrics at this point feels a bit like kicking a puppy. Paper Tongues’ intentions are really good. They want to help people and change lives through their music. On “Trinity”, North sings that he lives his life for “the people who need a comeback”. On “For the People”, he tells us, “Don’t lose heart ‘cause things get better”. Every other song has an equally earnest set of lyrics. The sentiment is so spot on that the clichés are unavoidable. But there is a difference between inspiring people and telling people that they are being inspired.
Maybe Paper Tongues would have been better off if they had never handed that piece of paper to Jackson. This band needs some rough edges. It is possible that they had some grit as a struggling band in Charlotte, but whatever life it may once have had been got sanded off in the production of this album.
// Notes from the Road
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