[11 September 2008]
The Broken West, a four-piece out of Los Angeles, received a fairly positive reaction to their debut I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On on the back of a corker of a single (“Down in the Valley”) and the strong sense of their hometown’s sunny atmosphere that pervaded the record. The bad news is there’s nothing approaching that one song on their sophomore release, Now or Heaven. But the band has tried to extend the evocation of their home, dressed up in chiming guitars and major, layered harmonies. Unfortunately in this, as in their quest for another “Down in the Valley”, the band falls short. They’ve penned ten tight songs—few are much over three minutes—but their retreat into lush alternative rock has left them sounding less country-tinged Western skies and more pale Britpop imitators.
The Broken West haven’t even tried to recapitulate their most successful earlier material, with its slow-drawn, built-up-on-megaphones whimsy. Instead, they’ve polished their sound into something that gleams, certainly, but may have lost personality in the studio scrub. Vocalist Ross Flournoy has a conventional pop voice, not as pure as the most distinct male singers, but smooth and attractive. It gains an edge as he reaches the top of his range, and is less forceful when he’s putting on an alt-rock delivery, but on the whole has an openness that’s easy to listen to. However, there are times (as on the second verse of “Auctioneer”) where Flournoy lands under the note and, instead of gloss, it feels like a mistake. There’s something to be said for ragged edges—it was part of the charm of the group’s debut—but here and there on Now or Heaven you feel like you’re listening to a band rehearse, not perform.
Having said that, Now or Heaven’s no chore. These songs are punchy and to the point, and if they don’t always leave that much of an impression, they’re affable enough that you’re still largely predisposed to like them. And, whatever, a few tracks are really good. Opener “Gwen, Now and Then” turns padding synths and straight 4/4 into easygoing beauty, a kind of she’ll-be-right opening that’s actually really effective at putting you at ease. “Got It Bad”, a stylistic switch-up in the album’s second half, mixes hip-hop inspired syncopations with a creeping-along synth pad. The song turns unexpectedly into electro pop, and just as unexpectedly into one of the most memorable tunes on the album. In this moment, the Broken West may have found a productive direction to move in the future.
But the biggest problem for the Broken West may be that in polishing up their sound they’ve emerged sounding like a wannabe Coldplay. Stuck in the mid tempo, mid tenor range for much of the album, the group milks that chimy guitar sound until there’s nothing left. The group’s better when upbeat, as on “Perfect Games” and “House of Lies”, capturing this pleasant middle ground of singalong and attitude. Now or Heaven is hardly a failure for the Broken West. But I think we can hope for better from this straightforward indie rock group in the future.