The whole genre of power pop seems to have fallen off a cliff somewhere between the Foo Fighters’ second and third albums. There are only so many times you can hit those triumphant platitudes and sing-along choruses without getting formulaic and just downright cheesy. Of course guitar rock will never fade. U2 still makes shitty albums built around monster riffs and bands like New Pornographers and Arcade Fire make more intricate melodies which build and secede around their amplified and distorted guitars. There’s always a market, even if it has lost its relevance.
So my expectations may have been low concerning the new album from Manchester Orchestra, a recent addition to Sony’s Canvasback imprint. Manchester Orchestra, in you haven’t heard, is neither from the UK nor very orchestral. The band builds solid melodies which are surprisingly catchy and revolve around singer/songwriter Andy Hull’s constant chord changes and slight southern drawl. Manchester Orchestra made the rounds after releasing their 2006 album, I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child, impressing David Lettermen and WB sitcom producers (critics not so much). So sure, it makes perfect sense that these guys would get a big record deal, right? More mediocre fodder for the masses would play right into the common snobbish outlook on major labels. However, despite my apparent disdain for guitar anthems and record execs, the label that signed Annuals and Glen Hansard shows that Evil Empires can have a Colin Powell among the many Cheneys.
Much of the reason why this album succeeds, modestly, is singer/songsmith Andy Hull. Hull is still fairly young and probably has a ways to go artistically. But his mistakes are few on Mean Everything to Nothing, an album that probably signals the youngster coming into his own.
“The Only One” starts the album out with pure unbridled fun. The song’s punchy distorted guitars and bright synth is combined with handclaps and Hull’s slight twang. It’s a great opener, a head-bobbing track that really sets the stage for an optimistic rock record. “Shake It Out” has a nice percussive ‘shake’ during the verse and slick hook on the chorus. “I’ve Got Friends’ really highlights Hull’s songwriting skills. The song has a very effective climax, taking the listener along on Hull’s wild ride. You feel his lyrics when he shouts about having friends in “all the right places.”
Mean Everything sags a bit in the middle. “Pride” is probably meant to be deep and contemplative but comes off plodding and dreary with its faux-metal riff. “I Can Feel a Hot One” borders on beautiful as some light horns add atmosphere to Hull’s note plucking. This is the case, at least until he utters the line about his daughter “crying inside your stomach.” It may be a small oversight that babies are conceived in the womb, but this is painfully ironic given the title of the band’s 2005 EP You Brainstorm, I Brainstorm, But Brilliance Needs a Good Editor.
Manchester Orchestra gives us more sing-a-long choruses with “My Friend Marcus” and muted harmonies on “Tony the Tiger”. “100 Dollars” has Hull mimicking both Conor Obersts’s quivering vox and Jeff Magnum’s creaking wail in one of those minute-and-a-half gems that screams, ‘indie-folk song sans polish’. The closer “River” is a dirge of cascading emotions rounding out what is a surprisingly quality effort from a band previously likened to “a heap of maudlin, self indulgent crap.”
The main problem with this guitar-driven genre is that it’s meant to succeed, big time. Nickelback writes songs that are intended for the upper deck. This is why when they fail, they fail so miserably. Is there such thing as a mediocre U2 album? And if so, who wants to waste their time on it? Not me. Manchester Orchestra probably isn’t looking to fill any stadiums in the near future, but their music will probably sound great from the VIP section at the Bowery Ballroom. I’m sure Canvasback knows this.