Band mash-up leads to something of a grab-bag
Bad Books is the result of a collaboration between Kevin Devine (Brother’s Blood, Make the Clocks Move) and Andy Hull of Manchester Orchestra (Mean Everything to Nothing, Let My Pride Be What’s Left Behind). Thrown together in just a few whirlwind days of writing and rehearsing, the resulting full-length features five songs written by each of the men, backed by members of Manchester Orchestra on the usual rock ‘n’ roll instrumentation. Like the best collaborations, the result is something that sounds like more than the sum of its contributors’ parts. Listeners expecting a carbon copy of either Devine’s modern troubadour or Manchester Orchestra’s high-energy angst-pop may be surprised to find elements of both combined here to create a richer, layered experience.
That layered effect is evident from the start with ironically-titled opener “How This All Ends” and its opening washes of gently distorted guitar supported by waves of layered, harmonized vocals. The somnambulent vibe is punctuated by occasional slabs of urgent percussion or strident yowling, and this dreamy-but-anxious tone continues to be channeled throughout the first several songs. “Baby Shoes” marries a simple, almost nursery-rhyme melody to bitter lyrics and fly-buzzing-against-the-window guitars. Combined with a couple of somber mostly-acoustic numbers, the first half the record is a serious affair—easy enough to listen to, but disconcerting in its own way.
“Holding Down the Laughter” marks a bit of a turning point, revelling as it does in a deliciously poppy melody immersed in a thick stew of murky guitar and keyboard tones. Bouncing piano, whammy-bar effects, and a relentlessly bouncy rhythm section chase away the angst side of the pop-angst equation. This is immediately followed by “You Wouldn’t Have to Ask”, the most straightforward tune on the record: A plain old rock song with—dare I say it?—almost emo overtones, one that begs for a fist-shaking audience of frat boys to shout along with the chorus. At under two minutes, it’s also the shortest song here.
As the album winds down, the disparate elements so far in evidence—the sensitive acoustic strumming, the eclectic electric elements, the pop-rock crowd-pleasers—continue to uneasily bump alongside each other. “I Begged You Everything” is more acoustic strummery of minimal interest, while “Please Move” deftly weaves slide guitar, snaky bass and snare-heavy percussion into a tasty mix, leavened with anguished vocals and impressive swathes of distortion that build into a soaring crescendo. This is perhaps the strongest song on the album and a fitting climax to the set, but it’s followed by the two-song coda of “Mesa, AZ” and “Texas”.
“Mesa, AZ” carries a faint whiff of country with its jangly guitars and almost pedal-steel intonation. It’s a pretty enough song, but following after “Please Move”, there is an almost inevitable sense of anticlimax. The same can be said of album closer “Texas”, a gentle acoustic solo number that winds up the proceedings. Perhaps inevitably, the various influences that go into Bad Books are reflected in the songs’ disparate tones; it’s tough to say what exactly the band sounds like. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, is it?