One of the least sincere lines in criticism is the old standby, "it's hard to fault them for their ambition". It is, in fact, very easy to fault artists when their ambition is completely and utterly out of their grasp. When Paris Hilton decides she wants to be a singer, it is easy to fault her for not recognizing her limits. When Michael Jordan quit basketball to see if he could conquer minor league baseball, was it difficult for critics to fault him then? What is truly difficult to criticize an artist for is just barely fulfilling expectations, for achieving a disappointing adequacy. As a helpful illustration, Blanket Music's Cultural Norms suffers from both a lack of ambition and entirely too much.
Let's start with the lack of musical ambition exhibited in Cultural Norms. Blanket Music specializes in a low-key twee-pop that, for most, will conjure up images of Belle and Sebastian. Of course this is an unfair comparison, mostly drawn up by the eerie vocal comparisons between vocalist Chad Crouch and Belle and Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch, as Blanket Music's sound only has surface parallels with the chamber-folk of If You're Feeling Sinister or the woozy pop of Dear Catastrophe Waitress. Blanket Music, at least, incorporates a wider variety of genres into its sound. Most notably, the band integrates soul and R&B rhythms into its work that help separate it from the indie pop masses. The furious organ-driven stomp of "Cats Corps" owes nothing to the Nick Drake-inspired fantasias of the countless Belle & Sebastian wannabes.
If these influences mark a positive separation between the two bands, Blanket Music seems to care little for the dramatic progression that may mark Belle and Sebastian's greatest strength. The songs on Cultural Norms remain almost irritatingly static, no matter how many bridges Crouch throws into the mix. These songs do not go anywhere; they just amble on their own middling pace, occasionally hitting a catchy chorus before fading away into the ether. Cultural Norms is a pleasant listen, but there is an essential laziness to the music that resists emotional investment. Despite the wide sonic palette, the band loads all sorts of guitars and horns and strings into the mix; the instrumentation is far too tasteful to make any impression.
Rather than saving his ambition for the mediocre melodies that sink the album, Crouch saves it for the album's concept. Cultural Norms is supposed to be sort of a snapshot of America, circa 2004. Many of the songs are written from the perspective of a wide swath of Americans, which, in theory, is a laudable goal to counter the consistent navel-gazing that plagues the indie-pop world. For instance, Ray Davies -- for 30-plus years -- has inhabited and chronicled the lives of a wide array of human beings who are nothing like him. In a country that seems irreparably divided between Red Staters and Blue Staters, an artist who has insight into all Americans would be a welcome relief (particularly if his last name isn't Springsteen).
Crouch, to put it mildly, is not that songwriter. His character sketches are nothing more than paper-thin caricatures created without any real emotional insight. When the dollar store manager of "Keep the Prices Down" talks about how "The values in my opinion are in the household cleaners / The mark up must be steep in all them grocery stores", he does not sound like a real store manager. Instead, he sounds very much like what a writer imagines a dollar store manager might sound like. In an attempt to bridge the red and blue gap, Crouch has the earnest narrator of "A Soldier's Story" cheer the president, an effort to show the listener how the soldier's love of him is true and real despite the soldier's later discomforts after the war "trying to figure out what is real". This is a nice gesture, but it is a gesture that stands out as a political point and not the thoughts of a flesh-and-blood human being. Even when the band takes its semi-satirical aim at its fellow 20-somethings, the results are as out-of-touch and bewilderingly banal as Tom Wolfe's increasingly clueless ramblings. "Digital Pedestrians", sung from the point of view of an avid gamer, and "Filesharer's Lament", about a serial digital downloader, are both too desperate to be topical or ring true.
Cultural Norms works best when Crouch sings from his own perspective. The opening "You Shouldn't Have Said That", an oblique musical riff on the Youngbloods' "Get Together", is a nasty and satisfying lyrical beatdown of an unkind critic. "Press Conference" is even better, simultaneously a great song and a pre-emptive strike on, well, reviews like this one. "Press Conference" is a satirical attack on those who, in the immortal words of Le Tigre, "de-politicize my rhyme": "What if it had no slogan, no meaning outside the melody?" Blanket Music wants to mock the concept of music without outside context, complete with a chorus that consists of nonsense syllables.
The power pop of "Press Conference" almost makes me believe in the band's goals, even if the remaining tracks provide evidence that these goals are undesirable. Ultimately the band's lack of musical ambition, of staying in its comfort zone of unthreateningly plain melodies, sinks Crouch's theoretically admirable lyrical ambition.