[4 April 2014]
In an early episode of How I Met Your Mother (just go with me for a second, okay?), the usual suspects are out to celebrate New Year’s Eve. Everyone’s favorite sociopath Barney Stinson promises to set the right mood with his “Get Psyched” mix CD. What sets apart his CD from the thousands of pretenders? Rather than ebb and flow, rising and falling to create a nice experience, “It’s all rise,” Barney exclaims as the introductory shouts of Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name” sound through the limousine.
Manchester Orchestra’s Cope seems to be made with that mentality. Frontman and songwriter Andy Hull told Consequence of Sound that he wanted to make an album that was “just brutal and pounding you over the head every track”. The album isn’t quite as savage as all that, but it is “all rise”. And much like Barney’s legen (wait for it) dary mix CD, the idea is better in theory than it is in practice.
Think about this: Manchester Orchestra’s most popular song to date is the aching, string-laden ballad “I Can Feel a Hot One”. For every “Virgin” and “Where Have You Been?” that came before, there was a “Leave It Alone” or “Sleeper 1972” to provide balance.
Even if we think we want it “all rise”, we don’t. Sometimes, you have to come down. Considering few bands in the alternative rock scene can reach the emotional depths Manchester Orchestra routinely plumbed until now, Cope feels like its missing a key piece that would make this good record an excellent one. (And no, “After the Scripture” — a song fans have known for months — on the deluxe edition doesn’t count.)
As it stands, it’s an enjoyable collection of songs, but it’s not a complete record, crying out for a lamenting ballad or lilting pop interlude.
This record is meant to be listened to loud. The production team has graciously mixed this record particularly flat. Plenty of stereos or earphones will favor bass expression, and so do many record producers. This means that by the time you’ve cranked the volume so the treble is blasting, the bass is probably breaking up. Not so here. You can turn it up to 11 and the warm guitars, bristling vocals, synth accents and rock-solid rhythm section still fall together perfectly, no matter how busted-ass your sound system.
Cope opens with “Top Notch”, a straight-ahead rock song, featuring driving, palm-muted guitars, filthy string bends and Hull’s stratospheric vocals. It’s excellent, but those same conventions show up on every other track on Cope. Fans will surely rejoice the return to Mean Everything to Nothing-era sound—guitar-forward, simple and dynamic, with less theatrics than Simple Math.
The best part of Hull’s songwriting is still present: the razor-sharp lyrical hooks that can be sung over and over again, as on “Top Notch”: “All that I know / is there’s no way to fix it.” “Girl Harbor” is another song that demands to be sung along with, getting under your skin with infectious lyrical codas of “I don’t wanna believe / but I wanna believe you,” and the exclamatory, “you waste so much time!” It’s these bits that make Manchester Orchestra one of the most powerful live acts going. I’ll give them this: Cope provides tons of tracks for an epic live performance.
“Choose You” features a tempo-shifted chorus, but is otherwise a power-pop gem. “The Ocean,” is staccato and reveals their Southern-rock influence. “Every Stone” answers the question we didn’t know we wanted answered: “What would Blink-182 write if they only listed to Queen for a year?” If tracks one through nine sounded like Mean Everything to Nothing, “Indentions” signals a shift to the sound of Simple Math. This is initially the softest moment on Cope, power-pop with Hull’s voice as rich as ever over almost-subdued guitars, sustaining piano chords and video game synthesizer.
In typical Manchester Orchestra fashion, the record finishes strong and dark. “See It Again” is so similar to “Virgin” the band should sue themselves. The title track closes the record in magnificent fashion, fusing the heavy rock palette of Simple Math with the arena anthem sensibilities of Mean Everything to Nothing, and the result is a more sinister, grittier “Pride.” “The Mansion” and “All I Really Wanted” are the record’s more forgettable tracks, mid-tempo rock unable to stand out from its other mid-tempo rock albummates.
If it was Hull and company’s goal to craft a relentless, “all rise” rock album, they’ve certainly done that. Cope just wasn’t the transcendent journey that Simple Math was, or the picture perfect indie-rock masterpiece of Mean Everything to Nothing. The more I’m forced to do it, the harder I find giving albums number ratings. This is a collection of eight and nine-out-of-10 rock songs that come together to make a six-out-of-10 album experience.