The Churchills' You Are Here is solid evidence that not all albums can be judged by the first few tracks. Tradition dictates that an unknown band will frontload its album with its most winning tunes in the hopes of catching a kind ear at a listening station, thus making it safe to assume that if you're not hooked after the first couple of tracks, you can take a pass.
But don't act quite so fast with the Churchills. The band's debut starts slow, with two mid-tempo tracks produced to a hook-dulling high-gloss sheen that recalls the most middling points in AOR power pop of the past few years.
Lucky for the band that we reviewers are expected to listen to a whole disc before dismissing it. While there's no aural equivalent of the bright light on the road to Damascus here, and the production gets no better as the record plays on, some of the tunes buried in the middle of this 12-song album were a revelation, tight, hook-filled songs with soaring choruses and a bit of edge.
One wonders, however, which is the real band: The one that plods through cliché-ridden pop structures, or the one that mixes it up a bit with adventurous arrangements and high-energy performances?
The answer may be neither and both, two sounds fighting for the soul of one band, the resulting album a disappointing whole with a handful of great tracks. It's better than those first couple of tunes might lead one to believe, yet it isn't as strong as some of the interior tracks might indicate.
The band's press bio makes much of the presence of co-producer Mark Hart, who is a veteran of Crowded House (and Supertramp, as it fails to add). It seems Crowded House is a big influence on bass player Bart Schoudel. While he exhibits little of the nuance and subtlety that make the Crowdies' Neil Finn such a gifted songwriter, Schoudel is definitely the secret weapon. The three-and-a-half tracks here that came from his pen are obvious standouts -- most notably "Disposable" and "Cars" -- the few songs where things are dialed down just enough to let in some sunlight and air and expose the solid hooks within.
The rest of You Are Here, however, is truly a mixed bag. The production is simply over-powering, and guitarist Ron Haney, who wrote the majority of the songs, just isn't the same caliber songwriter as Schoudel. Haney likely has a record collection full of bombastic, over-produced pop, and he does a good job of recreating that sound without really writing many decent songs.
Take the lead track, "Beautiful." It seems like a pleasant little tune. But strip away everything but the melody and imagine an acoustic guitar track in there somewhere. Pretty slight, huh? Somewhere along the line, many power pop bands decided that the best way to present their songs was as a wall of bright, shiny sounds with no variation or dynamics. That style certainly plagues much of this disc because Haney's songs can't transcend it.
It's easy to criticize much of modern power pop from a production standpoint, ignoring the fact that decent songs could be buried under the dross. But the best songs can transcend the worst production, and when that happens here, the results are pleasant burst of hooky pop. When it doesn't, which is too often to really recommend You Are Here, the result is something that seems to have all the right elements for success, but ultimately seems to be put together wrong, a puzzle with all the right pieces in all the wrong places.
If you like this sort of thing -- think Jellyfish, Jason Falkner, Tal Bachman -- this is likely worth a listen. But if songcraft, substance or subtlety are what trip your trigger, this is little more than a decent find in the used bins.