The Early Bird gets the worm
There’s a point on the Earlies’ sophomore album, The Enemy Chorus, when it stops being an album and transforms into an experience. The point itself isn’t exact, but the effect is. Fans of the ‘60s garage-tinted rock stylings of the Earlies’ first album will be jarred when they hear an album that couldn’t sound more modern if it tried. Electronic beats, swelling string sections, orchestral rock passages, vocal reverb effects stacked on top of each other like some aural pancake with all the fixings—it’s an enormous undertaking, no matter which way you slice it. It’s the fight against the sophomore slump taken to an extreme degree that no one saw coming. Not only did the Earlies win the fight, but they just won the war as well.
The Enemy Chorus is pure pop, but pop with a laser-edge focus. Every single note, keyboard trill, and lyric has been examined, polished, and put in its place just right. This is an album that feeds off of choruses, and chokes on the very notion of a useless atrocity like a guitar solo floating about. The opening salvo, “No Love in Your Heart”, starts with the strings flourishing about, before riding a persistent electronic thump, adding in the voices and overlapping melodies one-by-one, until we’re riding on a full-blown horn section at the close. Considering how the band began as a four-piece with members residing on opposite sides of the Pond, it’s a bit of a shake when you realize that right on the back of the LP, no less than 15 full-fledged band members are listed—a mark of undeniably expanding ambition. When you hear the oboe tune-up at the start of the near-perfect ballad, “The Ground We Walk On”, it’s hard not to imagine every one of those 15 musicians having some say in the proceedings, thinking that, “hey this random instrument would work great here!” and the other 14 realizing that, in fact, it does.
Yet such noble democratic songwriting would mean nothing if the songs themselves were unlistenable art-noise experimentations. You may have heard the crunchy horn opening of “Foundation and Earth” somewhere before, but here it’s so crisp and clear that you simply can’t ignore it. The melody, by itself, is unremarkable (and the vocals are almost an afterthought on this particular track), but through producer Tom Knott’s balanced lens, the whimsy overpowers the ridiculousness, and we’re left sitting with what sounds like the greatest Super Furry Animals album anyone’s ever heard. Ideas flow freely, yet they are arranged in a vibrant fashion. The looped piano of “Burn the Liars” would sound tiresome in other hands, but having a sci-fi keyboard break following the fast-talking chorus-in-unison, it not only works, it makes perfect sense, even if you didn’t see it coming.
However, such cinematic ambitions occasionally stumble over their own weight. “Bad Is as Bad Does” rides its dark melody for all it’s worth, but it’s one of the least attractive hooks that Enemy Chorus has to offer. The same sickness befalls a missed opportunity for a magnificent closer, the regrettably repetitive “Breaking Point”, relying on simple melodies to serve as a forceful climax, when all the momentum simply plateaus out around the three-minute mark. The Sufjan-inspired orchestral instrumental number “Gone for the Most Part”, could certainly have been argued as more fitting in terms of closure, but serving as a beautiful “intermission” for the album is a far stronger choice.
It’s hard to call an album like this a classic, right off the bat, and this critic certainly isn’t making such a claim. However, it’s amazingly close. It’s an utter joy to hear such a young band obtain ambitions that only seasoned veterans would consider, and astonishing to hear that same band actually live up to such shoot-for-the-moon optimism. It’s a rare album that is not only great on it’s first listen, but just as remarkable on it’s tenth. For all its beauty and even its flaws, it’s a remarkable achievement. Even for being released in January, it’s no stretch to say it’s already one of the best albums of 2007. The only thing more frightening: what the Earlies shoot for next.
// Notes from the Road
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