[8 March 2012]
PopMatters Assistant Editor
Ah, the harmonies. If there was only one thing that I learned about Good Old War after listening to their first two LPs, their debut Only Way to Be Alone and their self-titled sophomore album, it’s that these three guys do vocal harmony like no other. The trio of Keith Goodwin, Tim Arnold, and Dan Schwartz is simply incapable of not singing in unison. Every song on Come Back As Rain (and the rest of their discography, really) features their three-part harmony, which seems to be where the band likes to lay down all their chips. Having toured with a folk/Americana great like Alison Krauss, Good Old War must feel like they have a lot to live up to, and they do. Hipsters nationwide will each have a different answer as to which folk band is the most mainstream-bucking, and with some dreading Mumford and Sons’ likely ascent to Billboard-topping popularity, Good Old War do potentially have a shot at being the next Starbucks’ “Free Download of the Week”.
The band’s credentials, however, are somewhat misleading. Though they’ve toured with Alison Krauss, they are if anything Krauss-lite. They spend so much time making sure their vocal harmonies elicit comparisons to the Beach Boys that the music is relegated to the status of basic folk, which lacks the richness and nuance of genre greats like Krauss. And though the album’s Instagram-worthy sleeve art suggests a rustic, traditionalist approach to folk, this is as pop as folk gets. The instrumentation is acoustic, but it’s played in a way that paints broad brush strokes of the genre’s requisite traits rather than trying to present a distinct take on them. Admittedly, Good Old War didn’t exactly reinvent the genre on their past two recordings, but here they take the basic versions of their strongest skills (vocal harmonies, accessibility, and a knack for good hooks) and don’t do much embellishing. It’s interesting that this got released on the Sargent House label; it’s the closest that the very innovative label has come to releasing a pop record, and it lacks the challenging material that makes the label so great.
Come Back As Rain is the most straightforward recording the band has released. Each song follows the basic verse/chorus structure, with the band’s vocal harmony at the forefront. The backing instruments don’t ever really stand out; the most distinctive the album gets is on “It Hurts Every Time,” which is distinctive only because it’s the sole track to use a steel guitar. Other than that, it’s a pleasantly inoffensive listen. The band’s live shows have been noted for their sing-along capabilities, and Come Back As Rain no doubt has that strength to it. It’s easy to mindlessly sing along to the stuff here, because for the most part each song is all about the hook.
But while it may be easy to say, “Well, at least it’s a pleasantly inoffensive listen,” there is one area where the band falters quite noticeably: lyrics. On past albums they’ve actually had some lyrical successes, like the self-deprecating, nostalgic narrator of “Coney Island” on Only Way to Be Alone. Unfortunately, Come Back As Rain has some major lyrical duds. A particularly cheesy lyric on “Better Weather” recalls that “Our little house at the top of the hill / Was made with love / And four tons of steel,” sounding like a hybrid Hallmark/Lowe’s commercial. On “Amazing Eyes,” the trio pines, “You have amazing eyes / The right one suspicious and the left one wants my love.” Um, what? I can’t decide whether or not to laugh at how bluntly stated the first line is, or the absurd image created by the second. The first line is indicative of a larger rejection of subtlety on the record’s lyrics; “It Hurts Every Time” points out that “No one likes the rain / When it rains all the time.” I live in Portland ... trust me, I share the sentiment. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but there is such a thing as brevity without wit.
For those partial to well-sung vocal harmony, Come Back As Rain will likely be on repeat for a week or two. There’s not much depth, so the record flies by pretty fast. Unfortunately, though it’s only inoffensive and not terrible, the music here marks a regress in a good band’s still-young career. The vocal harmonies are great, and their skill with a good hook is near prodigious, but that doesn’t mean that they can be nothing better than “a really catchy folk band.” There’s a lot that can be done with the folk genre, as it’s branched out into more sub-genres than I can count. But, for now, so long as they keep writing songs like the material on this album, Good Old War have essentially set themselves up to be the premier Boy Band of folk: all fluff, little substance. It’s catchy fluff, yes, but fluff nonetheless.