Youth Companion turns down Mean Creek's charms and turns the rock dramatics up. In playing the arena-rock band, they lose too much of their identity.
Mean Creek have been blowing it up in their local Boston scene for years. Their last record, The Sky (or the Underground) was a full-bodied, big statement of a record from a band with a lot of rock heft, a lot of on-their-sleeve emotion, and a lot of power-pop infectious energy. Singer Chris Keene has that huge, booming voice, balanced nicely by the sweetness of Aurore Ounjian's voice and her razor-sharp guitar work. The rhythm section of Eric Wormwood and Mikey Holland anchor their sound with thundering rhythms and cool, rundown bass lines.
Theirs is the sound of an arena-rock band, so it's no real surprise they've gone on, since that record came out, to open for the likes of Counting Crows and Our Lady Peace. And so, having played for bigger audiences, building a larger fanbase, there's a lot at stake on Youth Companion. This is the big-shot record, the one that could put them on a larger map. The sound of the record makes it seem like the band is acutely aware of this. It takes all the grandiosity of its predecessor and blows it up even more. Keene's voice gets even rangier here, the highs higher, the emotions writ even larger than before.
It's full of the kind of hooks you need in this kind of big, serious rock record. Gliding riffs open "Do You Know?", riding over the crunchy chug of power chords. "Shakey" adds a sharper angle to those riffs, stretching them out and drenching them in distortion to up the tension. Single "Young & Wild" slows the hook down and gives it a blissed-out gauze, and the dreamy tune ends up being a highlight, as Keene celebrates youth and hopes for a time where "people never fade away." It's the kind of populism, the kind of fierce community that rock music tends to foster, especially in the hands of bands like the Hold Steady and, more recently, Japandroids.
The best moments on this record ride a thin line between this bliss and a want for something more. The slow build and space of "Indian Summer" is particularly affecting, as it turns down the volume in favor of a subtler, but no less powerful, effect. "Young & Wild" and "Shakey" hearken back to their past success, but build on them with a clearer polish. In these moments, Mean Creek is full of their own tense fury, but they also sound like a mature, professional rock band. It's this notion of professionalism, though, the idea that this album is about a bigger sound (and consequently, audience) that eventually gets in the way of the record.
The album seems eager, perhaps too eager, to appeal to a large swath of people, and as a result feels lyrically vague and, thus, anonymous. "Do you know what is real?" Keene asks on the album's opener, as part of a series of questions that feel big, shapeless, and disconnected. "You Were Wrong" is a shuffling rock number, but it also presents a pretty basic kiss-off to doubters that are not really present in the song. "I know what I want," Keene yells, while he tells some "you" that they were wrong. Who the "you" is and what it means that Keene has "found the place I belong," or where and what that place is all go unexplained. If the performances here -- the sharp guitars, the strident singing -- force emotion into these songs, the words don't give them much specificity. They can also dip into a kind of sad-bastard underhandedness on, say, "Evel Knievel" when Keene warbles out lines like, "I'm sorry if my love just wasn't enough," which is much less an apology than it is an accusation.
Since we can't get a grip on the emotional core of the record, the expansive rock sound and huge vocals end up feeling, too often, melodramatic. The choruses of "Evel Knievel" are shouted and end up sounding more grating than affecting. It's too bad, really, that those vocals, usually too high in the mix, muddle what are otherwise effectively moody textures in these songs. Underneath the insistent volume of Youth Companion, the charms of Mean Creek are still there. Unfortunately, they turn those down and turn up the rock dramatics. In playing the part of arena-rock band, Mean Creek loses too much of its own identity.