[16 June 2010]
What a difference a drummer makes. A few years back, We Are Scientists released With Love and Squalor, an energy-filled power-pop album with a bevy of catchy songs. Sure, it could’ve used a bit more variety between the tracks, but there was a sense of infectious fun to the band. Most of that fun came from the hooky vocals of singer-guitarist Keith Murray and the spot-on harmonies of bassist Chris Cain. But a lot of the energy came from the creative, driving beats of drummer Michael Tapper. Tapper left the band after their touring cycle for With Love and Squalor ended, leaving We Are Scientists a duo for the follow-up album Brain Thrust Mastery. That disc featured the awesome single “After Hours” and ten more tracks of mostly mid-tempo, synth-infused pop. With session man Garrett Ray sitting in on drums, Brain Thrust Mastery felt like most of the energy had been sucked out of the band. Murray and Cain tried to fill that energy void with more nuanced pop songs, but aside from “After Hours”, it was mostly a dud.
So, now the band is back with Barbara and they have a new full-time drummer, Andy Burrows, formerly of Razorlight. The difference is immediately apparent on the album’s first song and single “Rules Don’t Stop”. In a scant two minutes and 20 seconds, the song effectively establishes the blueprint for the album: a combination of Brain Thrust Mastery‘s pop nuance with With Love and Squalor‘s sense of fun and energy. Burrows doesn’t quite have the power of Tapper (though he’s close), but he is at least his match when it comes to creative, interesting stickwork.
One thing becomes clear about Barbara after multiple listens. We Are Scientists are a better band now than they have ever been. Chris Cain’s basslines have improved noticeably, at times giving the songs a funky bedrock for Burrows to drum around. It gives the band a full-fledged rhythm section for the first time. The songs have much more sonic variety this time around, too, from the atmospheric power ballad “Pittsburgh” to the pure power-pop of “Nice Guys” to the bouncy synth-pop track “You Should Learn”. And after all the synthesizer last time out, We Are Scientists deploy the keyboards much more judiciously on this record. There’s no point where the synths overwhelm the rest of the music, and when electronic sounds are used, they fit within the context of the song.
Lyrically, Murray is mostly concerned with the same topics as always, namely girls and going out drinking. “Break it Up” finds him crafting what amounts to a mission statement on partying (“If no one wants to be up all night / What’s the point in even going out?”) over a thumping dance beat. “Nice Guys” has Murray giving advice to a rival to continue being the nice guy while he goes out and actually gets the girl; “If you’re the nice guy / Act like the nice guy / If you want this, I want it more.” “Rules Don’t Stop” is the bands’ paean to rule-breaking, “It’s not as if it’s going to kill anyone / If there’s no victim than there’s no crime / Just draw another if you think we’ve crossed the line.” There’s nothing particularly deep to these words, but Murray and Cain know how to wrap it all up in an easy-to-sing-along-with package, which makes all the cad-like behavior go down a lot more smoothly.
We Are Scientists again sound like a band that knows what they want to do. The addition of Burrows seems to have grounded Murray and Tapper and let them get back to writing fun songs without leaving behind what they did on Brain Thrust Mastery. Barbara accomplishes something pretty rare. It successfully combines the best elements of two very different predecessors into one complete sound. Every track on this album isn’t a total winner, but enough of them are to leave a strong overall impression.