Earnest Americana act broadens the scope of its sound with regretfully middle-of-the-road results.
As it turns out, These United States could not have found a more fitting title for their third full-length, Everything Touches Everything. As its name suggests, the album finds the band exploring the many colors of the rock 'n' roll spectrum, from bluesy bar rock to stadium bombast to woolly folk and lilting country rock. And yet, just like the phrase "everything touches everything", which sounds profound but ultimately rings hollow, the record, superficially pleasant though it may be, fails to leave much of an impression on the listener.
Opening number "I Want You to Keep Everything" places the band's ambitions up front with its ringing Edge-esque guitar lead and dense, bright melodies. Two thirds of the way through, it blossoms into a full-on U2 number with a hint of southern rock verve. The lyrics, crooned earnestly by singer Jesse Elliott, also give late-period U2 a run for their money in the "universally relatable yet largely meaningless" department (sample lyric: "Over / Baby, we're over that river / Our love was a river"). Title track "Everything Touches Everything" falls into a similar trap, though, in cramming quotes from both Borges and Rainer Maria Rilke into its chorus, manages to feel heavy-handed even as it works to cultivate a sunny, laid-back vibe.
Pretentious isn't a good look for this five-piece, as the album's first few tracks attest. However, by mid-album, the band finally starts to hit its stride with a handful of straightforward numbers that drop the posturing and embrace rock's simple pleasures. "Night & the Revolution" closes with a scuzzy blues-rock stomp that recalls early White Stripes, with Elliott howling like a wounded man out on the prowl. "The Secret Door", meanwhile, opens with a proggy nod to Ok Computer-era Radiohead before settling into an easy gait, splitting the difference between pedal steel twang and bouncy piano pop. Late-album highlight "The Important Thing" hints at a band with more personality. A weird amalgam of kitchen sink folk, keyboard pop and back porch blues, the song finally reveals the band's D.C. roots with a syncopated post-punk rhythm that recalls the Dismemberment Plan.
While Everything Touches Everything is hardly a bad record, it often feels unfocused and scattershot, like the product of a band that can't quite decide what it wants to be. This is especially frustrating as the musicianship on display here is uniformly quite good -- it's the middle-of-the-road songwriting and lack of momentum that holds the album back from connecting on more than a superficial level. Here's hoping that on their next album, These United States realize that there are few things less exciting than a band that aims to be Everything to Everyone.