[26 August 2007]
The States, a young New York rock band, have come a long way since last year’s self-released debut, Multiply Not Divide. The band recently won a category in the John Lennon Songwriting Competition, building accolades the way the rest of us build resumes. It’s not a natural way to build a career in rock music, you might think, but this workmanlike approach to music-making has its rewards: solid songwriting (yes, we know, they won a prize for it), tight arrangements, and a sound that’s been solidified rather than diluted by the additional studio tools. If we’re not particularly blown away by the originality of the band’s dramatic, slightly nostalgic rock, we’re at least respectful; and at times, there’s a flash of real insight.
From the sound of it, in their ideal world the States would be Radiohead somewhere between The Bends and OK Computer. Their lyrics are associative, short sentences that presage doom: “The statues move as soon as you turn around”; “This narcotic we appreciate”; “The walls are coming down”. Whether the “yous” addressed are female love objects, Jack Abramoff, George Bush, or the societal accusatory Second Person is often not clear, giving the political songs in the set a vague, all-encompassing menace.
Musically, the band has settled deeper into some of the same influences evident on their debut, while utilizing the expanded palette of the studio to bring out newer elements. Vocalist Chris Snyder’s voice has some of the angst of emo, and though there are harmonic reminders of Muse, the group doesn’t rely as Bellamy does on his voice’s drama as a main mechanism for imbuing songs with life. Don’t be mistaken—the States are in the business of mainstream rock, with radio aspirations and the tools to get there: the breakdown-to-whispers, the soaring tenor choruses, the U2 guitar arrangements.
At their best, the States manage to capture disappointment and outrage with similar intensity. “Black Jack” is a model of songwriting efficiency, tightly reining in the aggression of straight-edge 4/4 guitars with a faster, chiming arpeggio passage that blossoms into a dance-rock-driven second half. Meanwhile, “All the Salt in the Sea” opens with a classic image of lost opportunity: the face of a girl behind subway doors: “In the wreckage of the day / It was the patterns of your face that saved my life”. The song bucks into double time halfway through, a neat effect.
“New Land” showcases the group’s willingness to enter the musico-political arena. Here, the subject is gentrification: “So we suburbanize the ghetto / Price the poorest out / Columbus would be proud”. Though the song has rather obvious instrumentation—electric piano, expanding into high guitars, then into roiling guitar for the chorus—musically it’s really tight, stringing the listener along (especially in the chorus) with married long vocal line and busier accompaniment. The risk here, as with bands like Get Him Eat Him that come from a background of obvious intellectualism/pop musical literacy, is of over-abstraction without linking the Important Thoughts with instrumental ideas that communicate the emotion behind them. The States avoid this trap not with any particularly inventive solution, just by applying these original thoughts to the established vocabulary of rock.
The States bend now and then—here towards emo, there towards New Wave and dance-rock—but they’re pretty much as straightforward a rock band as you’ll find going in Brooklyn. Primarily concerned with radio melodies and sing-along choruses, the group still manages to intimate deeper meaning at various points throughout The Path of Least Resistance. They’re not alone in lamenting the state of the US as we find it today—they’ve just found a pretty effective way of expressing it. As Snyder sneers on “The Architect”, “Liberty is such a bitch”. Indeed.