When did indie rock become so toothless? These days, it seems every band is rounding out their sound with strings and horns. One of the biggest releases of the year is a progressive folk album by a harpist. The most anticipated release of 2007 is the Arcade Fire’s sophomore effort, following their triumphantly string-laden debut. Sufjan Stevens has garnered acclaim for his oboe, trumpet, and banjo-tinged tunes about America, while the Decemberists surprisingly took their epic sea shanties to a major label. Not to knock these artists, but I fear upon listening to the debut album by My Latest Novel, we are just seeing the beginning of a long line of Sufjan Arcade Newsome Fire tailgaters. What makes these artists in particular so fascinating—regardless of what you might think of their music—is a singular voice and vision that shines clearly throughout their works.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be harsh, as on the surface, there is much to admire about Wolves. Producer Andy Miller allows plenty of room for the group’s multifaceted sound to breathe. And breathing room is needed, as the band is capable of shifting volume and tempo, inconceivably seamlessly and abruptly. Vocally, the group sings beautifully, whether it’s lead singer Chris Deveney or the entire band joining in on four part harmonies. The aesthetic is great and creates a wonderful template to work from, but unfortunately Wolves fails to amount to much.
It’s difficult to listen to Wolves without feeling that not only has the precedent been set, but that My Latest Novel haven’t yet surmounted that bar to make them worthy of attention. Belle & Sebastian perfected the highly literate, slightly precious but intelligently crafted pop. Arcade Fire reinvented the pull of emotional fragility against soaring choruses, while Sufjan Stevens packed his bags and offered us a vision of America instead of looking inward. So what do My Latest Novel offer? Sadly, much of what we’ve seen before. It is in every way a first album. It’s the beginning of a band stretching its wings and finding it’s footing. The challenge the band faces will be in expanding that sound into something relevant. Their influences, particularly Belle & Sebastian, have remained interesting primarily by dipping their toes in new waters, while keeping their personality intact. And it’s personality the band is distinctly missing. All the pieces fit together sonically, but the narrator is curiously nondescript. One’s expectations will be met at face value, but I’d be hard pressed to list a reason why this album would be spun again once the stylistic sheen has lost its effect.
It’s difficult to say where indie rock will go next, but Wolves is an unfulfilling visit to the past. The comparisons I’ve listed here echo many other reviews, not out of convenience, but simply because it’s the truth. My Latest Novel are easy to love and digest, but that’s precisely what makes it so uninteresting. There is no danger, chances, or forward thinking taken here. It’s a thoroughly pleasant and equally forgettable album that is thoroughly precocious but lacking the intelligence, originality of concept, and verve to make it the classic it sets out to be.