Volume 1 is a pleasant love letter to '70s rock, but rarely does it transcend its constituent members and feel like a true "super group" album.
BNQT bills itself as "a new indie supergroup", and despite my reticence to any band self-applying that moniker, one can't argue with it. Comprised of members of Band of Horses (Ben Bridwell), Franz Ferdinand (Alex Kapranos), Grandaddy (Jason Lytle), Travis (Fran Healy), and Midlake (Eric Pulido), the constituent members of BNQT (pronounced "banquet") are responsible for a disturbingly heavy portion of my early-to-mid-2000s listening, including two songs that played at my wedding: Travis's "Flowers in the Window" and the finest catalog of dogs in public I've ever heard, Grandaddy's "At the Mall in Klamath Falls".
Calling themselves a supergroup, draping a '70s sheen over every composition, and naming their debut album Volume 1, BNQT is clearly tying itself to the legacy of the Traveling Wilburys -- they even refer to themselves as "a poor man's version of the Traveling Wilburys" in their promo materials. The intent is clear: to build an artistic edifice from people with diverse creative backgrounds, melding their skills to create something wholly different. The Traveling Wilburys (Dylan, Harrison, Petty, Lynne, and Orbison) achieved this through intense collaboration, meeting at Dylan's Malibu home (and, later, Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics' house) over the course of a couple of weeks. They even created a mythos of being half-brothers to lend some offbeat cohesion to the project.
BNQT’s Volume 1 departs from this template in one crucial way: the times and technologies are different. While Dylan and company gathered in person, the artists of BNQT often worked in isolation, sharing thoughts and demos from afar to be compiled by Pulido in his Texas studio. As the promo materials point out, Volume 1 “includes ten new, original songs and features five vocalists… who wrote and sing two tracks each". That wording is crucial. Rather than write together, reconciling and blending each member’s unique lyrical perspective and go-to musical motifs, each member instead was given the task of writing two songs -- kind of like a homework assignment.
That's reductive, of course. Ideas are inevitably shared in the creative process no matter how far-flung the creators are, and there's both a cohesion of '70s-indebted sound and brilliant sequencing that make Volume 1 so much more than five 7" records taped together. In fact, it's quite good, from rollicking opener "Restart" to somber closer "Fighting the World". But it doesn't achieve the super group ideal; even before the vocals begin, it's almost always clear "whose" song it is. Both of Jason Lytle's compositions (the excellent "100 Million Miles" and not-do-excellent "Failing at Feeling") include the same mid-tempo, middle-distance keyboard and occasional strings that have become his trademark. The sunny vibe of "The Mind of a Man" sounds like Travis taking on Britpop, and the insistent thump of "Hey Banana" (a lyrical dud) sounds remarkably like a Franz Ferdinand composition slowed down.
At times, you can feel the artist stretching into new territory, and those moments usually shine. Perhaps no one captured the spirit of this project more than Ben Bridwell. "Unlikely Force" adds some distinctly non-Band of Horses easy-listening jazz into the mix, and "Tara" is a vintage slice of AM radio with a decidedly non-AM-friendly chorus ("Fuck me? Fuck you, too!"). Only on "Real Love" do all five singers feature together, and the result is a blissful three and a half minutes that transcends any individual artist.
Volume 1 is an enjoyable throwback record fit for fans of any of its members, at least for a few spins, but ultimately it's less fondue and more cheese plate -- still delicious, just not as rich as it could have been. Hopefully, their next offering (Volume 3 if they follow the Traveling Wilburys model) will feature tighter collaboration and better capture the super group spirit—that could be a heavy-rotation record indeed.