[30 March 2008]
The Battle Royale are a young band who are still finding their sound. Their starting point seems to be synth-soaked dirty dance-pop, as their debut, Sparkledust Fantasy, was filled with the stuff. Wake Up, Thunderbabe is their second album, and they’ve decided to split it in half. The first six songs are in that same catchy, electro-style pop, while the last five are acoustic guitar-based folk songs. It makes for an interesting dichotomy, but the band isn’t quite able to pull it off.
The disc opens with “Wake Me Up”, a mid-tempo song with a deep groove and a cool guitar riff that really works. Lead singer John Pelant speak-sings his way through the song and pretty much sticks with that style for the first half of the disc. “Notebooks” uses a pipe organ sound to give off a slightly creepy vibe before sliding back into the distortion-heavy style that drives most of this part of the album. Bassist Grace Fiddler’s backing vocals show up for the first time here, and although they’re thin, they do add some nice contrast to the track. The rest of the album’s A-side continues in this vein; distorted guitars and dirty keyboards provide the base for pretty catchy pop songs. “Confessions Pt. 2” has a nice lyrical back-and-forth between Pelant and Fiddler, and “Racecar” has a good hook with the two of them shouting out “Whoa-ohs” in harmony.
“Scream Scream” brings the folk at the beginning of the album’s second half. The two vocalists try their hand at actual singing here, and do a nice job. The song itself is good, too, with well-placed flourishes of harmonica and glockenspiel. But the transition from distorted synth-pop to acoustic-based folk is nearly nonexistent. Maybe it’s a shame that we no longer listen to music in a format that has two sides, but we don’t (vinyl-loving audiophiles aside). And that makes it more difficult to split an album in half the way the Battle Royale try to do. “Scream Scream” is strong, but the shift in styles is jarring and completely throws off the record’s flow.
To make matters worse, the folk half of the album feels slightly unfinished. “Our Thoughts Are A-Pourin’” is a sweet little song, but the lyrics are downright dumb. And without the distorted synths and catchy beats filling up the song, the words are on full display and much more noticeable. “Thunderbabe” sounds like a demo recorded in a living room. Maybe that’s what the band was going for, but the quality of the sound is distinctly rawer than the rest of the album, even the other acoustic songs. Album-closer “Let’s Leave”, on the other hand, may be the record’s best track. It’s a well-written song featuring Pelant’s most heartfelt vocal performance. Piano and violin make the song sound much more fully realized, and it managed to hold my attention for the entirety of its six-minutes-plus running time.
Wake Up, Thunderbabe sounds like a band trying to figure out what they want to do. Some of the acoustic material is very strong, and so is some of the plugged-in stuff. But a nearly equal amount of each side is forgettable, and I question the wisdom of a band with two synth players going acoustic. I’m sure that Sam Robertson and Mark Ritsema play piano and other things here and there on the folky section of the album, but it seems like an oddball decision for the band as a whole. This album has some keepers, but it never really pulls together as one coherent work.