Maybe These Are the Breaks is a well-crafted album of sad-sack songs rendered in Masters of the Hemisphere’s trademark bubblegum-pop framework, though it is also frustratingly inconsistent and poorly ordered.
Athens, Georgia, indie-pop/rock mavens Masters of the Hemisphere have been quiet for a long, long time. Nine years to be exact. Ergo, it has been a long wait for fans of the group wanting something new from the band. Now, finally, they’re back! For those who missed them the first time around, Masters of the Hemisphere were great at distilling indie-pop with the power-pop crunch of yesteryear sounds. While not a terribly great album, due to the fact that it was a loose (and incoherent) concept disc about an evil dog terrorizing an ocean island, 2000’s I Am Not a Freemdoom did boast soaring melodies and a grasp of the ‘70s pop vernacular. Even though I gave away that album many years ago to a used CD store, I can still hum the opening bars to that album’s “So What About Freemdoom”, which illustrates the knack this quartet had for making delectable slices of earworm burrowing music, stuff that is hard to dislodge even from pop-culturally overstuffed brains.
Here we are almost a decade later, and Masters of the Hemisphere is still making some finely rendered music, with a few new kinks in their framework to make their sound a little less indie American retro and a tad bit experimental with Krautrock and Europop flourishes. The less welcome news is that Maybe These Are the Breaks is an album that isn’t really streamlined as a massive rush to the head, and the band’s willingness to explore new sounds and textures leads to a concoction that is a tad bit lumpy and cold, with sonic dead-ends and abrasive or abrupt twists. While Maybe These Are the Breaks is a somewhat longed-for return for the band, even though the indie-pop landscape has shifted considerably in the past decade, the album is less a continuation of what they were doing in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, and more of an exploration of new territory -- perhaps as a result of changes in what’s fashionable in music.
The changes are in full effect on the album’s very first track “Egg Shell”, which features some trademark Beach Boys-esque melodies, but they’re buttressed with some very Johnny Marr-inspired guitar work, and the song has an ‘80s Britrock cadence to it. That’s followed up by the short “Volcano”, which sounds vaguely Cure-like, as does the follow-up track “Watch It Go Away”, which starts out with Robert Smith-esque guitar. If that makes it sound like Masters of the Hemisphere has invested themselves into mope rock, that would be at least partially true. However, the record takes a stylistic u-turn from there: “One More Time” is a funky, almost soulful number, showing that the band has more than one ace up its sleeve. “The Follow Through” goes even one step further into the motorik sheen of bands like Kraftwerk, combined with the glossy Europop of the likes of Depeche Mode, which would suggest that the band has been listening to a bit of chillwave lately. “Down For the Pound” is a venture into downbeat, frostbitten territory. “There’s a grey cloud standing over me”, goes the lyrics, and, sonically, that would be true. There are grey clouds all over this album, which rub against the band’s past discography of sunny, upbeat and catchy power pop gems. But just when you think Maybe These Are the Breaks is all doom and gloom, you get “Half a Fool”, which is a bristling slow-mo country jam with some twee flutes added to the mix, just to shake things up a little bit.
From there, the album reaches for strong storied heights in pop craftsmanship, but not without some stumbles. “Jim Belushi” offers a rocking early Joe Jackson stutter to it, but the chorus baffles: “The blues came and went away / With Belushi, the son of James / And devotion to nothing left to say." Uh, James is not the father’s name in the family -- it was Adam -- if the song is indeed about the sitcom star and movie actor. So listeners might not be sure of the tune's subject or what it is, indeed, trying to say. Likewise, “Six Feet of Snow” is an agreeable lullaby featuring some shimmering fretwork and delectable melodies, but it feels more like an album closer. Instead, it appears 10th on the running order of 12 songs. The track is followed up by the jaunty “Slaughterhouse Island”, is a bit of a mismatch in terms of preserving a logical sequencing to the disc. The same is true of “Down for the Pound” running smack dab into the differently sounding “Half a Fool”.
Overall, Maybe These Are the Breaks is a well-crafted album of sad-sack songs rendered in Masters of the Hemisphere’s trademark bubblegum-pop framework. However, it is frustratingly inconsistent and poorly ordered. As a result, it feels more like a collection of would-be singles and B-sides than a proper album. That said, the record at least doesn’t have any high-flung concepts and embarrassingly twee tracks about despicable dogs, which may leave a better taste in the mouths of listeners. If you’re looking for a collection of songs that are sadly beautiful, the perfect soundtrack to leaves crunching underfoot with the emergence of fall as a season, then Maybe These Are the Breaks is an agreeable listen. What’s more, it’s nice to see the band back in action as they did have some winning songs in their back catalogue that were next-to-impossible to dislodge from your head. While the record has its faults, maybe those are, to quote the title of this long-player, simply the breaks you’ll have to endure in watching a band trying to get back on its feet after a nearly 10-year layoff. Maybe These Are the Breaks is not an overarching pop statement. It is merely the sound of a foursome taking baby steps in reuniting and trying to stay relevant while the world has, by and large, passed them and their backwards-looking sound in the rear view.