Now that we’ve had our fill of bloated, obnoxious rock from Australia — that’s right Jet and the Vines, I’m talking about you — the stateside debut of Sydney’s Youth Group is all the more refreshing. Skeleton Jar is the band’s second effort, but for most listeners it will be an exciting introduction to a band that’s sure to win a following with their infectious and sophisticated slice of pop that draws equally upon Brit Pop jangle and American indie rock melancholy.
The group first lit up my radar when I caught a glimpse of their video at 7:30 AM on a Monday morning before work (incidentally, one of the few time slots when MuchMusic actually plays decent videos anymore). The track was “Shadowland”, and its chorus that repeats the song’s namesake knocked around my head for the rest of the day. This delightful, raucous and upbeat track, though one of the album’s best, is also somewhat misleading. This is only track of its kind on an album that largely takes a much more contemplative pace. Switching evenly between mid-tempo rockers and slower, more intricate material, Youth Group succeed as often as they fail, but retain the promise of a band that has something potentially grander hidden up their sleeve.
Whether or not you like Youth Group will hinge on the album’s six-minute plus centerpiece “See Saw”. When given room to breathe, the band’s somewhat contrived quiet-to-loud formula (which plagues much of the album’s slower material) seems natural. A slow, beautiful builder, “See Saw” stretches its legs, allowing the listener to be carried along singer/guitarist Toby Martin’s beautiful voice. Rising and falling just like the playground toy, the band takes a lovely, ambient detour before launching into the explosive finale of thunderous drums, fuzzed out bass and wall of guitar, all of which push “See Saw” blissfully into the red. The nearly sophisticated approach to “See Saw” makes the album’s lesser tracks stand out that much more glaringly. “Drowned” and “Last Quarter” are positively amateur in comparison, relying on predictable dynamics and perfunctory execution all trapped within radio friendly running times. Other tracks like “Lillian Lies” and “Piece Of Wood” borrow melodies shamelessly, with the former echoing Velvet Underground’s “Stephanie Says” and the latter borrowing Ben Gibbard’s vocal delivery of the Postal Service’s cover of Flaming Lips’ “Suddenly Everything Has Changed”.
The patient listener will be well advised to wade through the mediocre tracks, for there are some true gems hidden throughout Skeleton Jar. “The Frank Stone Line” is a shimmering piece of breezily paced guitar rock. Blessed with a mix that is wide open and inviting, the track is guided by Martin’s lulling voice. “Someone Else’s Dream” borrows a page from the Strokes’ playbook of whip smart arrangements and solidly written riffs. Lyrically, the song questions the decision to get stuck in a dead-end job which makes the track dangerous office listening on a sunny, summery Friday afternoon. It’s only on “Why Don’t Buildings Cry” that Youth Group manage to find a way to blend their obvious dynamic shifts without resorting to more glacially paced songwriting. The song’s propulsive and engaging melodies, coupled with subtle washes of distortion, make for a compelling listen.
While the description of the music may bring to mind that evil three-letter word I’ve been carefully avoiding for this review, Youth Group are far too intelligent to get boxed in by such a description. The careful, atmospheric production by Wayne Connelly and flashes of gorgeous melodies and strong hooks throughout Skeleton Jar promise great things from this relatively new band. While the album won’t find its way into many Top Ten lists at the end of year, it will put Youth Group on the “Ones To Watch” list in a heartbeat.