The Submarines: Declare a New State

[21 June 2006]

By Dan Raper

Husband-and-wife team Blake Hazard and John Dragonetti are The Submarines. John Dragonetti in the past was Jack Drag, a minor ‘90s indie songwriter; Blake Hazard is the great-granddaughter of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Declare a New State is the album they wrote for/about their breakup in 2004 and subsequent renewed relationship (hence, husband-and-wife team). Well, if this album truly has sprung from the couple’s platonic conception of themselves, it’s a remarkably optimistic, if formulaic one: these songs can’t help themselves but bubble over with the happiness of love, renewed.

Ah, husband and wife teams. Richard and Linda Thompson. Mates of State. (The White Stripes?) Like off-screen couples who find it difficult to capture the spark of their relationship on film, on disc hearing a man and a woman declaring their love for each other can be nauseating. Worse, hearing both voices on one song (when they are each taking the spotlight at different times) can bring on memories of unconscionable schmaltz and soft-focus ‘80s videos.

The good news is, The Submarines manage to sidestep most of that distasteful kitsch (partly by writing an album centered around the experience of breaking up). Bad news is, the man-woman-man alteration that makes up some of the album feels a little forced.  When Hazard and Dragonetti sing together, as on the first single “Peace and Hate”, the combination feels much more comfortable than this alternation of singers. The songs are sufficiently different from each other that you could almost gather Hazard’s songs together and call them a different album. On the whole, her songs are in fact more appealing than Dragonetti’s, with touches of country and occasional great lyrical insight. There’s one pearler on “Brighter Discontent”. Hazard asks, “Is a brighter discontent the best that I can hope to find?”, just throwing off the line with hardly a melody, as she describes the loneliness of a new apartment, unpacked boxes, no boyfriend.

But just listen to the music sans-lyrics, even on “Brighter Discontent”, and you could easily mistake this for an in-love, not out-of-love, song. In fact, this is the album’s greatest downfall: for an album about a breakup, it’s just too upbeat. Even “Clouds”, all resignation and loneliness if you listen to the lyrics, is written from the certainty that things work out in the end—because for these two, they did. Sometimes listening to this album, you want to shout at these two lovebirds, You don’t understand! You didn’t really suffer!

Oh well. We can’t begrudge those in love their happiness. It swirls around these songs like an addictive drug, infecting major melodies and the treble-heavy mix. “Peace and Hate” has the melodic simplicity of a Blink 182 melody, the repetition of, say, “All the Small Things”, but in an arching line states the whole album’s philosophy: “breaking down cannot be cured by breaking up”.

As with many good pop groups with indie sensibility, electronic sounds peek in at the sides of songs—here, like a less adventurous/inventive New Buffalo. On Declare a New State, these small-scale creativities are consistently overwhelmed by pop sensibility. When the computer-interrupted stutters “we are scientists who will not be afraid” on “Vote”, it’s startling and effective. The album would benefit from more sonic experimentation like this.

The summer pop MOA here brings its own familiarities. “The Good Night” has the straightforward melody of Bright Eyes—you know, the way his melodies are so predictable, but invite you in nonetheless. “Hope” is reminiscent of a summery Flaming Lips tune, or the slower moments from The Vines. But just listening to the album, these associations mostly float past fleetingly, carried away by the songs’ prettiness and their confident happiness.

You could think of The Submarines as the diametric opposite of Jens Lekman. The former—together, turning even lost love into happiness; the latter—alone, managing to turn a sweet summer’s night into a dense bed of sorrows. So when on “Ready or Not”, the chorus tells us that love survives both peace and hate, take it as characteristic: whether or not this undermines the whole point of a breakup song, that’s up to you.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/the-submarines-declare-a-new-state/