South of the Boredom
Dear members of South,
You guys started out with so much plucky enthusiasm: a group of go-getters that were accidentally serving as the bridge between American alt-rock and British dream-pop sensibilities. You were youthful and weird, abstract yet oddly fun. You released some very good albums and made James Lavelle a good amount of money. Then, you jumped ship, landing on the Young American label for 2006’s Adventures in the Underground Journey to the Stars, this time producing everything yourself. The results were decisively mixed, but considering that you guys were still able to make absolutely transcendent songs like “A Place in Displacement”, it was hard to argue against your newfound independence.
Which brings us to You Are Here, an album that’s even more frustrating than your last one. It’s frustrating because, once again, us fans have to wade through the only two types of songs that you guys do: the forgettable ones and the absolutely astonishing ones. You once again produced it yourself, but somehow this disc sounds muddier, trashier, and much, much more lo-fi sounding. It’s not like you guys have suddenly recorded the UK response to Pinkerton (though, admittedly, you lovingly rip off Weezer’s fuzzed-out guitars on “Soul Receivers”), but there’s something distinctly different in the air.
You’ll find critics tossing around the phrase “Beatlesque” a lot in describing this disc, but that’s because you guys have never so blatantly copied ‘60s psych-rock as you do here. On “The Pain”, it feels like you’re trying to compress the entirety of The White Album into one song, hopping from one stylistic touchstone to another without much rhyme or reason. Same goes for the raw-sounding “The Creeping”, an acoustic ballad that breaks down into a pointless 16-bar strum-fest after the first chorus—a strum-fest that is never once again revisited in the song. Why do you do this, South? Are you bored with conventional structure? As your friends, we’re kind of worried.
Just when we think you’ve lost your talent for acoustic humdingers, you then toss us “Balloons”, a transcendent, beautifully arranged ditty that has us enthralled and entranced right up until it ends without any warning! “What just happened?” we ask, soon flipping through our media players only to discover that “Balloons” is, in fact, only 31 seconds long, thereby making one of your best moments one of your shortest ones as well. See what we mean when we say that this album is frustrating?
Yet once we get past the ridiculously short moments of beauty and the somewhat random strong structures (and don’t even get us started on the hidden track that’s played entirely in reverse), You Are Here begins to reveal its treasures to us. “Better Things” is classic South: a flowing chorus, interweaving guitar lines, and simple lyrics about life and love (this time about improvising lines in “the drama of your life”). This time, you even managed to (mostly) ditch the reverb that has so often plagued all your songs (not that we mind it—it’s just a nice change of pace). “Tell Me” is one of those sweet tunes that’s built off of the simplest of guitar riffs, soon adding crunchy drums and heavenly multi-tracked vocals, making for one helluva cathartic experience. Add in the achingly gorgeous “Opened Up” and suddenly we’re hooked all over again.
Yet you always have a secret, South: your albums
have “that one song”, that one track that reminds us of why we love you in the first place and why pop music is never really dead (despite what the cynics around us will occasionally whisper). On You Are Here, that song is called “There Goes Your Life”, and it starts off of pleasant enough: the simple tremolo guitars, the two-tone drum beat, etc. All classic South. Then, thirty seconds in, everything stops for a round of staccato string hits that grabs our ears and absolutely refuses to let go. Sure, we can toss in the “Beatlesque” phrase one more time, but here you’re synthesizing your influences instead of just flat-out copying them. It’s a magic that can’t be fully explained, and there’s certainly not enough singing in it for your label to consider it as a single, but it’s that one song that fans will go crazy for as soon as you play it in concert, that track that diehards will toss onto their “Best of South” mix CDs that they’ll make for friends who have never heard of you guys, and that song that is perfect for just about any mood.
So South, you again have frustrated us: you give us moments of divine pop bliss and some moments of songs that would have best remained on your reel of demos. You don’t always make it easy for us, South, but you’ve never been a band that’s known to treat your fans badly. Once again, we’ll stick around and support you, all while eagerly licking our chops until that next disc comes out. But next time, let’s try not to split the difference, OK? Just a great record all-the-way through? Thanks.
Your ever-faithful fans