Not Bad, In the Vein of Tears for Fears Meets the Killers
The Cincinnati-based keyboard-and-guitars indie rock duo Bad Veins have a shtick or two up the sleeves of the vintage Army fatigues that they don while touring. (Band leader Benjamin Davis’s choice of full metal jacket comes directly from his dad, who served in Vietnam.) For one, this poppy indie rock group relies on a reel-to-reel tape recorder, named Irene (shades of Echo, the personified drum machine from Echo and the Bunnymen perhaps), to bolster their sound – not unlike what ‘80s indie rock act Timbuk 3 used to use on stage. Davis also employs megaphones and rotary telephones to sing into to bolster his voice, and the second album from Bad Veins (not to be confused with the similar-sounding veteran D.C. hardcore band Bad Brains), The Mess We’ve Made, throws in all sorts of off kilter instrumentation to buoy the generally shiny happy sounding tunes: everything from horns to Mellotrons to banjos to barely-there background female vocals to, well, the kitchen sink pretty much. It’s a fascinating klatch of sounds to listen to, though sometimes the sheer wall of instrumentation gets in the way of the songs the odd time. Still, that doesn’t stop Davis and partner Sebastien Schultz from trying. To be different and above the crowd, at least.
To this point, Bad Veins have a certain critical cachet in some quarters. Their 2009 debut album was named No. 7 on ABC Amplified’s Best Albums of 2009 list, USA Today included the album’s final track “Go Home” in their Top 20 Songs of 2009, and the single “Gold and Warm” was featured in the recent teens-with-superpowers flick Chronicle. So the group finds itself with the ultimate sophomore quandary: how to continue the steady roll of critical acclaim and somewhat commercial notice while upping the ante a bit. To that end, The Mess We’ve Made sounds a lot like what you’d get if Tears for Fears merged with the Killers: Even Davis’s vocals resemble a slightly throatier Roland Orzabal’s, if you can picture that. There’s a certain New Wave feel to the album, and a great deal of it is catchy and appealing – so long as you don’t listen to it too closely. (More on that later.) The Mess We’ve Made even opens up with “Don’t Run”, a subwoofer-rattling bass heavy song with scratchy-sounding orchestrated violin stabs straight from the ‘80s, and it is a genuinely thrilling way to start the album – the song burrows under your skin upon repeated listens, and is the sort of thing you’d want to warm up to before heading out to the dance club. “Nursery Rhyme” continues in the same vein (sorry, bad pun): a woozy synthesized track with swooning strings that really makes you sit up and take notice musically. The strings get deeper, into cello territory, on follow-up cut “If Then”, a brooding and affecting piece of dance pop that has a Moby Dick reference thrown into it in good measure.
However, the group’s penchant for loading up on disparate sounds sometimes works against them. “I Turn Around” has a nice Hawaiian-inspired lilting ukulele line to start things off, but then adds swooning harp runs a la Joanna Newsom. Now, if there were two instruments that weren’t meant to go together, they would be a ukulele and a harp. Just doesn’t work. In fact, it makes you scrunch up your eyebrows and sigh, “Really? Who thought this was a good idea?”. As well, the lurching horns used on final track “Not Like You” will leave you either hot or cold, depending upon your mood when listening to it, especially considering the crystalline chorus with toy pianos plinking away. Thus, parts of The Mess We’ve Made come across as a bit of a mish-mash, but thankfully Davis and Schultz step on the landmines of being weird and atonal for the sake of being outré only here and there. Largely, the duo succeeds in marrying indie guitar pop with the slick synthesized sounds of groups such as the Cars on a track such as “Child” to a great deal of personal pleasure. When Bad Veins want to be pure pop, they fire on all cylinders.
I did allude to earlier that one’s appreciation for the album is based upon the fact as to whether or not one is using this music as a background soundtrack or not. The thing with The Mess We’ve Made is that the lyrics are, well, a bit of a mess, and merely exist for the sake of having something melodic to sing over the music, and have little other utility. Exhibit A? There’s actually a song on here called “Kindness”, as in “killed by ... ”. The duo’s reliance on cliché is evident in spades here, and is so cloying that you might derive greater satisfaction from replacing the vocal line with the sound of fingers being scratched against a blackboard. Similarly, “Nursery Rhyme” boasts the following nonsensical lyric that borrows a little liberally from Warren Zevon: “Some people say you should sleep when you’re dead / But I kinda like the world that lives in my head / I’ve got no clue as to what you and I might get ourselves into”. I’m reminded here of the beleaguered Ash from ‘80s Saturday morning cartoon Kidd Video attempting to string meaningful sentences together in his songwriting. Same problem applies here. Davis and company evidently don’t have much worth saying, and you might wonder if some of these songs were better served as being instrumentals.
Overall, The Mess We’ve Made is not bad for an indie pop album, I suppose. The first time I listened to it, I wasn’t particularly enamoured by it; when I put the album on as something to have on while I went about my business one Sunday evening making myself some curry in the kitchen, I found things to be a little more bouncy and enjoyable. Ultimately, that means that the record is something that works if you don’t really sit down with it and listen to it on headphones – it’s more musical wallpaper than anything else. Ambient pop music, maybe. Your mileage might vary, but Bad Veins have effectively made a record that is only worthwhile if you don’t pay very much attention to it. That might make the duo a little glum and unhappy, but if they really wanted to make an album that was worthy of more staying power, they should dial back some of their more experimental tendencies and work on making their words much more memorable. Put another way, if the band wants to earn the kind of accolades they appeared used to getting on their debut, they needed to do a bit more than simply wear Army uniforms as an image gimmick. They needed to apply military marching precision to their music. Still, that all said, you could do worse than The Mess We’ve Made: The songs are generally catchy and you might dance around to it in your living room. It’s just that the record is merely good, instead of being great – something that is somewhat gripping, but loses its grip on the most important thing of all: having songs that are genuinely memorable and stick well beyond a quick hit here or there. Maybe they really need a third person as an editor, after all, instead of a reel-to-reel tape recorder that can’t talk back and provide feedback. All I can really add to that is, well, maybe it’s time to sing “Goodnight, Irene”.
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// Notes from the Road
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