[25 February 2008]
Focus is a tricky thing. For example, when listening to a song like The Afters’ “Myspace Girl,” it’s hard to make yourself focus on anything else the band tries to do or say during the course of their newest album, Never Going Back to OK. In their web bio, the Texas-based group calls the song, positioned in the middle of their sophomore project, “out of the ordinary for us”, “tongue in cheek”, and “really fun”.
The song, according to the band, was inspired by the story of a friend who met his future wife at a Southern California burger joint and became better acquainted through the social networking phenomenon. A bouncy piece of Fountains of Wayne-esque pop, the track contains lyrics like “I saw your picture on MySpace / Maybe someday we can turn it into our space, baby / I don’t care how long it takes / I’m saving space in my top eight for you…” With all apologies to the real-life couple whose real-life story is likely very charming, the song seems a pitch-perfect soundtrack for teens hopping to and fro from their MySpace accounts, Facebook pages, and instant messenger conversations and doesn’t seem to offer much for anyone else to grab or consider their own.
It’s easy to hear the song in the context of an album full of radio-ready, infectiously melodic, highly engaging (but not ultimately inventive) tunes and use it as evidence in an argument against The Afters, to create a case that the band’s newest record is nothing more than a collection of superficial pop/rock songs whose true merit can be relegated to their respective places on the pop charts. But, more than one listen to Never Going Back to OK proves that a terribly unfair assumption. With this record, The Afters have not only established consistency in the realm of pop songcraft, they have also created credibility as a band who make the most of dynamic, arrangement, and execution in connecting with their audiences musically and emotionally.
Besides their melodic gifts (established early in this album and with hit tunes like the supremely sublime “Beautiful Love” from their 2005 debut, I Wish We All Could Win), what does the band have going for them? For starters, the 12 songs on this project showcase The Afters’ incredible musical tightness and cohesion. Guitarists Josh Havens (also the band’s lead vocalist) and Matt Fuqua share a wonderful sense of how to use (but not overuse) space in a song, create tuneful riffs, and employ loud/soft dynamics to the band’s profit. Likewise, rhythm section Marc Dodd (drums) and Brad Wigg (bass) lend strength and support to the melody and life embodied in the work of their bandmates.
Second, with the exception of “Myspace Girl (the album proves their word that it’s an “out of the ordinary” song), the band exhibits an ability to grant a rare amount of depth and substance to the matters of the heart they cover and describe in their lyrics. The album’s subject matter and the band’s treatment of feeling, commitment, and character are centered and mature. The album’s best tracks are those which afford a still fairly unfamiliar group a sense of familiarity (The Afters’ sound is rooted in elements similar to those employed by bands as varied as U2, Switchfoot, and The Fray) yet call on the band’s inimitable spirit and contagiously melodic writing. Songs like these show up early on the record (the title track, “Keeping Me Alive”) and often (“Beautiful Words,” “Summer Again”).
Ultimately, The Afters reinforce the notion that they are a band with a ridiculous amount of potential to rule the radio but gently remind listeners that they’re more than that, as well. If the band can stay away from gimmicky tunes that, yes, are fun but distract from their overall sensibilities, they seem poised to build upon momentum and continue toward stardom.