[25 February 2014]
The Fray are occasionally a painfully earnest bunch. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. What Helios does prove quite admirably is that they still have a knack for turning that quality into uplifting not-quite-Coldplay pop rock. This quality is sharpened throughout with just a bit of edge to keep things from descending into schmaltz.
This alchemy opens the album well with the echoing piano that introduces “Hold My Hand”. Things don’t stay subdued for very long, and by the 1:08 mark the piano is right back at the front, albeit with an urgent, layered beat that is classic Fray sound to the core. They take next track “Give It Away” in a direction that is very atypical for this band. Album after album have seen them dabble in balladry with solid rock chops. That’s what makes “Give It Away” so strange. Is it a Maroon 5-aping stomper? Is it a light-funk jam? It is those things and more, and yet lyrically it’s still a Fray song by the numbers. Once again, nothing particularly wrong with that. And truly, it is nice to see a bit of variation from the classic formula.
The snippets of sounds on this album that threaten to sound too much like their peers in the music industry occasionally do them a disservice. “Hurricane” has a musical structure that sounds just a bit too close to Coldplay if it were blended with a bit of Matchbox 20 styled rawness. Meanwhile, “Keep on wanting” treads dangerously close to U2 territory. Whether these particular sounds are a good or bad thing to emulate is all in the opinion of the listener. But whichever way the listener might lean on that subject, it doesn’t play to the Fray’s strengths when these similarities are too glaring.
Speaking of things that the Fray is all too well known for is as easy as listening to “Wherever This Goes”. It is a song made for closing your eyes and imagine the romantic comedy it will be featured in. Whether as a plaintive send-off over the closing credits or inserted into a pivotal scene within the movie, the image is clear. Not that they always miss the mark with songs like this. As much as “How to Save a Life” was overexposed, when it was used effectively (say as how it was used when included on an episode of Scrubs) that particular Fray song worked, and it worked well.
Album closer “Same as You” tries to branch out a bit. The guitars are still there, but largely tuned down to let an almost trip-hop sounding beat provide the backdrop. The lyrics are still classic Fray (again), but it feels too close to home. They start to take a bit of a risk, but slide right back into their comfort zone, and it still sounds like a typical Fray song even if it isn’t quite rocking along the way a typical Fray song would.
The bottom line is that the Fray is too comfortable doing what it does. This comfort results in pleasant pop rock with accessible lyrics that are easy to digest. The disappointing thing is how slight moments of innovation appear for fleeting seconds only, then disappear into the ether. It suggests a band that is capable of so much more, if only it wanted to try.