It was always going to be interesting to see how Idiot Pilot handled this one. Their debut, Strange We Should Meet Here, met a generally positive reception, though this mild acclaim was tempered by almost universal proviso, varied in substance but consistent in presence. Radiohead plagiarists; emo boys with too many toys; overusers of screaming in a style to which it was ill-suited—these were some of the gripes levelled at the duo’s first offering, and some of the issues that prevented a potentially innovative conception being molded into a satisfying whole. So the question with their sophomore is naturally how—and indeed if—the Washington duo took on board these complaints.
The answer, Wolves, is not particularly clear. A bit. Idiot Pilot have tweaked a few knobs, made a few changes, but the result, though different in sound, is a similar one in effect: an occasionally diverting but essentially unremarkable album. The adjustments: Wolves has more of a band feel about it rather than the bedroom aura of its predecessor. This is largely due to the increased presence of guitars in preference to laptops and synth, as well as the widespread displacement of drum machines in favour of a real live human stick-peddler, namely Chris Pennie of dramatically coiffed emo-progsters Coheed & Cambria. Oh, and the screaming’s pretty much gone, too. But the problem is, with these changes the band also seem to have dispensed with some of the idiosyncrasies that made them an interesting prospect in the first place. There was something admittedly appealing about Strange We Should Meet Here‘s clash of home-brewed electronica and messy guitars and the dual vocalists’ ability to veer from an almost lackadaisical sigh to frantic screams at will, even if it didn’t always quite work. Wolves, however, has had its edges smoothed and veneer glossed until the qualities that made the former album are frequently imperceptible.
Gauged on its opening overtures, however, it looks at first as though nothing’s changed. The insistent, digitized drumming and Michael Harris’s melting vocal sobriety means “Last Chance” introduces Wolves as a continuation of previous fare rather than a reinvention. But as the record unravels it reveals itself to be one whose creators have made a concerted effort to fill it with tunes, hooks, and choruses, belying the rough-and-ready experimenting of Strange We Should Meet Here. And so the crunchy power-chord based chorus of the opener is a tactic repeatedly employed, in “Elephant”, “Retina and the Sky”, and later “In Record Shape”. And where Daniel Anderson’s screams had previously proved a focal-point (albeit an unwanted one in some quarters), where these tactics of abrasion are resorted to now, as on the throaty howls of “Red Museum”, it seems forced, like a tacked-on attempt to appease the emo kids.
On the one hand you could see this increased emphasis on regular song structures as an effect of maturity, but on the other, it seems to have robbed Idiot Pilot of a little of their bite. There are decent songs on Wolves, but time and time again they show themselves to be the ones that aren’t conventional songs at all. The likes of closer “Recurring Dream”, for instance, is more linear than anything else here, and though its explosive finale seems a little contrived, it is still more satisfying than any of the over-polished chorus repetition that opens the album.
Ultimately though, Idiot Pilot’s sophomore is a little too spineless. It’s as though, in the attempt to iron out some of the flaws of their debut, its follow-up has lost some of its character. And so, while on the face of it Wolves should be a more satisfying album that its predecessor, in reality it isn’t. Strange We Should Meet Here was rough-around-the-edges and all the better for it; Wolves, under the production helm of Mark Hoppus, is too neat and tidy for its own good. Most were hoping that Idiot Pilot would play to the strengths of their debut to produce a top-notch follow-up; in reality, they’ve played to their weaknesses and come out with a sophomore that is little more than average.