Armor for Sleep's major label debut eschews progress in favor of a distinctly uninspiring record with a pervading sense of déjà vu.
Someone, somewhere, didn't want me to review this album. Or at least that's how it seems, anyway. Providence would have it that my stereo's mysterious death more-or-less coincided with the arrival of this disc at my door. Naturally, I turned to my iPod as backup, as is 21st century protocol. But it was not to be. Not content with plastering both the CD and its enclosing case with threats regarding the repercussions of unauthorized copies, apparently Armor For Sleep's label think I'm capable of single-handedly bringing down the music industry, Warner Brothers’ somewhat over-the-top copy protection also prevents their promotional discs from functioning on computers. Inconvenient.
So, anyway, with my friend a CD player lighter, I eventually united my ears with Armor For Sleep's third long-player, Smile For Them. I needn't have bothered. Not just because the resulting 45 minutes of anodyne, banal rock-lite is scant reward for the effort expended in listening to it, but because I've heard this album before. Not this exact album, of course, but these tired riffs, this predictable subject matter, these hackneyed lyrics, which have all been done before by a hundred bands of the same genus. That genus, of course, is emo. Yes, 'emo' is a dirty word these days; so dirty, in fact, that to lump a contemporary artist into that genre now seems tantamount to an insult, and a clichéd one at that. But it's bands just like Armor For Sleep that made it a dirty word in the first place.
Take Smile for Them's introductory tirade, "Smile for the Cameras", for instance. The pseudo-tricksy, reverb-heavy guitar riff, that power chord chuggage, those nasal whines, sound so tired and derivative, that it's difficult to take seriously. Thankfully the album doesn't quite plumb these depths again, curiously, Armor For Sleep seem to have opted to use Smile for Them's weakest track as its overture, but these problems remain throughout and are symptomatic of the album as a whole. "Run Right Back In" is My Chemical Romance without the character, while "End of the World" fancies itself as an apocalyptic anthem but comes across as a petulant strop-rock that could easily be written to soundtrack the exploits of whichever superhero Hollywood next decides to give the floppy-fringe-and-black-hair-dye treatment.
Nor is the issue solely musical. Thematically, too, the New Jersey four-piece's follow-up to 2005's What to Do When You Are Dead ticks the boxes you'd expect it to, ranging from unrequited love to existential crises. Basically, frontman Ben Jorgensen is not a happy bunny. We know this because he makes it abundantly clear, on each and every one of Smile for Them's 12 tracks. His disillusionment is so exposed, in fact, that it's not long before it begins to grate and it's difficult to feel anything approaching empathy for the travails of this apparently perpetually wronged 20-something rock star.
"Williamsburg", for instance, reeks of a whining teenager resentful of his more popular peers ("Too hip to even clean your nose out"), at times bordering on the laughably melodramatic ("This city was a blueprint for Hell"). Good God man, you don't have to live there. Jorgensen's love life too, seems to be plagued with the bad luck which so haunts his geographical positioning, and here, too, it is difficult to hear anything other than the whimpers of a lovelorn teenager when he moans "you're going to die in somebody else's arms and I have to live with that". Poor thing.
Again, it's not specifically the subject matter that is objectionable as such, it's the clichéd "woe is me" manner of delivery that could just as easily be the produce of bands like Hawthorne Heights, Taking Back Sunday or Story of the Year. So when Jorgensen inquires of his anonymous antagonists, "do you know how obvious you are?" it's difficult to believe that even he can see past the irony of the question.
To be fair, there are attempts by Armor For Sleep to mix things up a little, such as a loose concept revolving around celebrity and a sort of Truman Show-esque surveillance, though this idea never really bears satisfying fruit. Musically also, there are brief suggestions that the band are capable of more than the emo identikit portrait they depict. "Snow Globe", for instance, with its rolling drums and subtle strings, begins promisingly, but, frustratingly, runs out of ideas and ends, abruptly, before the two-minute mark. Undeniably, also, the band have an ear for a melody, with the likes of "Williamsburg" and "Somebody Else's Arms" bearing the type of choruses that frequently bring chart success in their wake. But these positives are so resoundingly outnumbering by negatives as to render them exasperations rather than saving graces.
Of course, there are bands of a similar ilk to Armor For Sleep that have gone positively stratospheric in the past couple of years, but, despite major-label backing, it's difficult to see the New Jerseyans doing the same. My Chemical Romance is ridiculously overblown, but they know it, while Fall Out Boy and Panic! at the Disco might seem to wage war with the opposite sex to the point of misogyny, but they do so with a heavy dose of irony. Armor For Sleep, on the other hand, both musically and lyrically seem to be stuck in high school, with Jorgensen genuinely convinced that the world is out to get him, and these deficiencies will most likely, for the time being at least, prevent the band rising above anything other than emo also-rans.
You never know though, come their fourth offering, perhaps Jorgensen will have cheered up a little; found himself a new girlfriend, moved house, filled his new place with pot-pourri, and the like. But if not, don't hold your breath that album number four will see Armor For Sleep climbing out of the musical quagmire in which they've firmly embedded themselves.