Whenever I’m at an unfamiliar restaurant, and don’t really know what to order, I always settle for a tuna melt. You know what you’re getting with a tuna melt, every tuna melt is basically the same. Sometimes they throw in thousand island dressing to mix things up, but a tuna melt is always comfortably familiar. Faced with a countless barrage of choices, it’s always tempted to fall back and choose something reliable. Maybe that’s why I really enjoy American Hi-Fi’s Hearts on Parade. I knew what I was getting with this album from the opening bars of “Maybe Won’t Do”: a snotty mix of pop-punk and a dash of trendy faux-disco flourishes, all coated with a heavy mainstream polish (courtesy of famed producer Butch Walker). I knew from the first song out, that the band would make up for its embarrassing lyrics and subject matter by having really big pop hooks and chunky guitar riffs. Hearts on Parade did not surprise me. For good or ill, this album is musical comfort food.
Drummer Stacy Jones, it turns out, was in the musical comfort food business for a while, formerly working with 1990’s catchy-and-disposable quasi-alternative rock outfits Letters to Cleo and Veruca Salt. American Hi-Fi apparently had a modern rock hit a few albums ago, I’m guessing around the time when I was going out of my way not to listen to anything on modern rock radio. Given the sheer catchiness of the band’s songs, there’s no real reason why American Hi-Fi shouldn’t be absolutely dominating the modern rock charts. Hearts on Parade is ready made for the radio, where their facelessness would move from an aesthetic drawback to a downright asset. On record, “The Geeks Get the Girls”, a ridiculously implausible narrative as the title suggests, suffers from the fact that it sounds pretty much exactly like a Bowling for Soup song. On the radio, where nearly everything starts to sound like everything else by sheer repetition, it would thrive.
This is not to say that American Hi-Fi doesn’t occasionally change its sound. As noted early, the band has made a decision, perhaps with one eye on the Killers, to add some more dance-rock into its pop-rock sound. “We Can’t Be Friends”, for instance rides on sort of a dumbed down Rapture groove, and it actually sounds more intriguing than those countless “dance-punk” (how I loathe that term) outfits. American Hi-Fi is hardly punk, and is far too straight-laced to work out the arrhythmic stylings of post-punk, so the incorporation of dance motifs into their music doesn’t quite fit. The rhythm section lays down a respectable disco track, and Jones gives his best Bee Gees inspired, helium-laced vocal track, but guitarist Jaime Arentzen is unable to do anything but lay down an out-of-place hard rock riff. The song is fascinating because it accidentally deviates from the otherwise predictable patterns that American Hi-Fi establishes throughout the rest of the album. It works because, ironically, it doesn’t quite work.
On the rest of the album, however, American Hi-Fi sticks with the pattern. Disco beats pop in on later tracks, but the album is straightforward “rock”. (Isn’t it sad that without any sort of modifier, that word becomes something of a synonym with mediocrity?) Every song sounds a little different, but that’s only because the band incorporates a different rock cliché into every song. “Baby Come Home”, for instance, starts with a surging repeating riff, with pounding drums, before heading into the predictable souring chorus. It would be a more powerful song if the band was interesting enough to trick the listener into thinking that it was capable of transforming into a shoegazer band for an entire track.
Hearts on Parade is thoroughly undistinguished, containing only the barest threads of independent thought. The songs are constructed solely to contain catchy choruses. It is overproduced and under-inspired. It will, however, surely grace my CD drive again some day, because, in all honesty, sometimes I get so overwhelmed that I have to step back and go with something simple and reliable. It’s hard to totally pan the modest ambitions of American Hi-Fi, just as it is ridiculous to fault a tuna melt for being anything other than a tuna melt.