Equal parts shaky and sturdy.
While Better Than Ezra may have faded from the pop charts, they haven't forgotten their ability to craft a catchy song. From the slow building of "Absolutely Still" to the recursive pop of "Just One Day", Paper Empire is Better Than Ezra doing what they do best, crafting high-energy, fun college rock. For the most part, they don't carve out any new territory on Paper Empire, but they don't miss a step traversing their old turf. In fact, it's when they deviate from their formula that they miss beats.
As with their other albums, crafting easy, triumphant choruses is their strength. "Turn Up the Bright Lights" is -- pardon the pun -- a shining example of this. Lead singer and songwriter Kevin Griffin seems to have a natural sense for the rhythm of lyric delivery -- he knows when to wrap the lyrics around each other quickly and when to slow them down. He makes it seem effortless, but it's more likely a meticulously honed craft, considering how rarely a new Better Than Ezra album comes out and how much songwriting he does for other artists. (Few know that he was responsible for Howie Day's hit "Collide".) Yes, these songs are poppy, radio-ready numbers, but Griffin has a way of making you remember the craft that goes into making such songs.
Still, both those who love and those who hate Better Than Ezra can find plenty of gripes about this album. The latter are hopeless, but the former do have some ground on which to stand. While Paper Empire has some pop gems, it also has moments like "Nightclubbing". "Nightclubbing" is Better Than Ezra trying to sound like the Killers or Franz Ferdinand -- and not exactly successfully. Career-long fans of the band may lament the times when the band experimented within a certain alt-pop range, rather than branching out into the general pop market.
But "Nightclubbing" is simply embarrassing, as is the Auto-Tune-fraught "Hell No!" and the street chitchat included on "All In". The most likely explanation for these songs is that the band are trying to garner mainstream relevance by today's standards, rather than accept that their fanbase was determined in the past 20 years of their career, when mainstream music was a different creature altogether.
Regardless of the past, Better Than Ezra now are still turning out catchy tunes even on somewhat uneven albums like Paper Empire. But no Better Than Ezra album is complete without some gorgeous ballads, and Griffin hasn't lost his touch at crafting those either. "Hey Love" is the first ear-catching one, though it's more uptempo than most of the band's ballads. The real money shot for slow numbers is the last song, "I Just Knew", which showcases Griffin's perfect falsetto atop a gently building body of song. Also noteworthy is the quicker-but-still-somber "Wounded", in which Griffin proclaims "With all the blood I have to give / I choose to live". And we're reminded that this is a band that choose to keep making music that makes people feel good, whether or not they're still in the spotlight.